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The leader of the Diocese of Venice is exhorting the faithful to turn prayer into action at two noon rallies Friday, one in Naples and one in Sarasota, to fight the federal mandate requiring employers’ health care plans to pay for contraception.

Bishop Frank Dewane sent a letter to all parishes in the diocese, read at the weekend’s Masses, calling for church members to protest not only with their presence, but pepper politicians and policymakers with the message that the mandate must not stand.

“Now is the time for action!” Dewane wrote, asking that parishioners “pray and fast” so policymakers will have a change of heart, and drawing a parallel between the struggle over the mandate and the martyrdom of some of Christ’s apostles for their faith.

“While possibly not called to be martyrs, we are called to be doers and defenders of the Faith,” he wrote.

The rallies will be held at the corner of U.S. 41 and Pine Ridge Road in Naples; and the corner of U.S. 41 and the John Ringling Causeway in Sarasota. They are part of a nationwide movement called “Stand Up for Religious Freedom,” backed by a coalition of religious groups across the country. The coalition is led by the Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. The Naples Pro-Life Council and MariaNews.com of Ave Maria University in Naples are members.

The mandate is included in the Affordable Health Care Act, an initiative of President Barack Obama often referred to as “Obamacare.” The law is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision expected by the end of the month.

The issue transcends politics, said Billy Atwell, diocese spokesman. “The HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate is an issue of religious liberty and freedom of conscience that certainly has political implications, but it is at root a violation of basic rights and freedoms.”

Wendy Grassi, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said that rather than an attack on religious freedom, “I would say that Planned Parenthood considers these attacks on birth control as an unprecedented assault on access to basic health care.”

Opponents say the Affordable Health Care Act not only mandates no-cost coverage for contraceptive services, including sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs.

Not so, Grassi said. The coverage would include the morning-after pill, which prevents pregnancy, not the RU 486 pill, which induces abortion, she said. And nothing is mandated, she said. “No one has to buy birth control.” However, “the average woman in the United States spends 30 years of her life trying not to get pregnant,” Grassi said. Contraception coverage would prevent unintended pregnancies and prevent abortions, she said.

Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll released May 22 found that 82 percent of Catholics in America and 89 percent of all Americans believe contraception is “morally acceptable.”

Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the mandate, but it does apply to church-related institutions. A compromise proposed by the Obama administration says that a church-affiliated institution such as a Catholic hospital or a Catholic school would not pay for contraception as a part of the health care plan for employees. But if an employee wanted those services, the health insurance company would supply it at no cost to the employee.

However, critics say that the cost will inevitably be passed on to the employer.

The controversy shows no sign of abating. In March, the coalition claims that more than 63,000 citizens came out in 145 cities across the country to rally in opposition. If rallies don’t work, the Catholic Church and other religious groups have already turned to the courts. A total of 23 lawsuits have been filed so far against the mandate, including one brought by Ave Maria.

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