CHICAGO (Reuters) - More than 500 people, some carrying crucifixes and pictures of religious saints, rallied in Chicago on Friday to protest a government regulation that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees.
The regulation, which is part of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, has sparked a dispute between the administration and the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes artificial contraception.
Opponents of the law say the government is forcing them to support contraception and sterilization in violation of their religious beliefs.
"I think this is more than a Catholic issue - this is a religious freedom issue," said Linda Duplantis, a Catholic who attended the rally in Federal Plaza. "I think it's for anybody who believes in religious freedom in this country."
Speakers at the rally included Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz, chair of the legislative committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who said an attack on the freedom of one religion is "an attack on any religious faith in this country".
Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said similar protests were held Friday in other cities, including Atlanta, Madison, Wisconsin, Wilmington, Delaware, Lansing, Michigan, and Santa Ana, California.
Rally participants in Chicago held yellow-and-white papal flags and signs with slogans such as "Keep Your Mandate Off My Rosary." Also attending were Catholic priests and nuns.
Last month, the University of Notre Dame and other Catholic institutions sued the Obama administration to block the regulation.
The original law exempted churches and other houses of worship from covering contraception on the basis of religious objections. But it did not carve out an exception for religious nonprofits, such as hospitals, charities and schools, sparking protests from church leaders.
As a compromise, Obama scaled back the healthcare rule in February, announcing that insurance companies would cover the cost of the birth control for religious employers. Lawsuits said the accommodation did not go far enough.
Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the mandate is not new and 28 states require insurers to cover birth control to the same extent as other medications.
"This fight isn't about religious liberty at all. It's about whether women can have insurance for birth control - whether they can make that decision about their health needs or whether employers can make that decision for them," said Lipton-Lubet.
Several rally participants talked about abortion. One Chicago speaker, Nancy Kreuzer, who works with women who regret having abortions, said the mandate "opens the door for the funding of abortion on demand."
At the California rally, attorney Greg Weiler, president of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, said Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are among the ``intellectual elites,'' who ``feel that forcing us to pay for abortions is a good thing."
Lipton-Lubet said the focus on abortion is "complete misdirection."
"The rule includes coverage of birth control only," Lipton-Lubet said. "It has nothing to do with abortion."
About 20 counter-protesters across the street from the Chicago rally held signs reading "Stop the War on Women" and "Freedom from Religion."
In Santa Ana, counter-protester Bruce Gleason said it was unfair for religious groups to be granted tax-free status and receive government funding, and then object to federal standards regarding the health care law.
Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Andrew Hay