A rapt crowd of several hundred Catholics sat in the auditorium of St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip Saturday morning, waving tiny American flags and heartily applauding at a rally meant to invigorate what they described as a fight to protect religious freedom and First Amendment rights.
The rally was organized by Catholics for Freedom of Religion, which has espoused educating and advocating for First Amendment rights "on a nonpartisan basis" for "every American of every faith."
Among the most frequently seen signs posted on the glass doors outside the auditorium: "Stop Obama's HHS Mandate."
A day after President Barack Obama's administration announced its final compromise on the issue of whether religiously affiliated charities, hospitals and other nonprofits will be forced to cover birth control for their employees as part of the Affordable Care Act -- an issue that has outraged some religious communities -- speakers at the well-attended, three-hour rally pressed the importance of informing others about and acting on their constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Megan McCarthy, 15, who lives in Coram and attends Longwood High School, read a speech at the rally that she wrote -- it won first place in a religious freedom speech-writing contest sponsored by the rally organizer -- about the moment she realized the Constitution guaranteed that she could discuss her faith at school without worrying about getting in trouble.
"Going to public school, I've witnessed a lot of stuff where kids are like, 'You can't say God,' and I knew that I could," McCarthy said. "I freely express it whenever I can in school to show people that that's OK."
McCarthy, who said she wants to enter politics or become a journalist someday, echoed the leading sentiment of the rally: She said it's wrong for the government to force employers, such as Catholic institutions, to pay for something that is fundamentally against their religious beliefs.
The compromise announced Friday simplified the definition of religious organizations that are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control in employee health plans, according to Obama administration officials. Religious nonprofits that are not exempt must tell their insurer they object to the coverage and the insurer will notify affected employees separately that coverage will be provided at no cost.
Barbara Samuells, a founding member of the group Catholics for Freedom of Religion, closed the event by pleading with the crowd to stay informed and keep pressure on an issue she said denies basic religious freedoms.
"That constitutionally assured gift to practice our religion is not ours to lose," Samuells said. "It is ours to steward for ages . . . And for millions yet unborn."