WASHINGTON — Set against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol, a Stand Up for Religious Freedom rally event drew hundreds of participants to a park in Washington June 8.

People gathered to show their support for religious freedom and to protest a federal Health and Human Services mandate they say violates that freedom by requiring most religious employers to provide no-cost contraceptive coverage even it is contrary to their beliefs.

Organized by the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, based in Michigan, the local rally was one of many taking place the same day across the country. About 63,000 people rallied in an estimated 160 cities.

Officials said the new round of rallies was an attempt to continue the momentum they say was generated by similar rallies held March 23 in front of U.S. courthouses, state capitols and historic sites.

At the Washington rally, the mood was energetic and seemed to take on a political tone. As one protester called out, “Stand up and fight for religious freedom,” a passer-by quickly retorted, “I am a Catholic and I support HHS.”

“Never before has the government forced taxpayers to buy products directly involved in sterilization and abortion causing pills” said U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. The former presidential candidate was the first of a host of speakers to address the crowd.

She called attention to the special place religious freedom has in America’s roots. Bachmann told the crowd, “In the rotunda of the Capitol, I gazed upon my favorite painting, the ‘Embarkation of the Pilgrims.’ The pilgrims have their hands in prayer and there is an open Bible in the center of the painting.”

She pointed to the central role religious freedom played in the pilgrim’s plight and journey to America. “Written on their sail is ‘God With Us,’” she continued, “and God is with us today in 2012.”

Other speakers drew comparisons between the HHS mandate and the anti-religious antagonism of former socialist nations. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., son of Hungarian and Polish immigrants, said: “The government burned down my parents’ church. This government is burning down the churches not with a torch but with a pen.”

Speaking in Spanish, Father Jose Hoyos of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., talked about the Hispanic community’s need for love and compassion and its support for pro-life issues.

The next group of speakers took on a decidedly partisan tone, calling for a change in administration in the White House. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., said, “When government expands, freedom contracts. We ask you in November to send us help and replace a president.”

“We have approached dependence because of our great abundance,” said Robert Dornan, former U.S. representative from California who was a prominent pro-life voice when he served in Congress.

As a result, he said, he believes Americans were willing to lose their freedoms to be reliant on the government. “We have to change presidents because everything we love is at stake in this election.”

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06/08/2012 5:03 PM ET

Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops