The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Students meet, debate on HHS issues

Civil discourse was on full display March 22 on the Great Lawn, as protestors both in favor and against the recent Health and Human Services health care mandate engaged in cordial debate.

The mandate, which was issued as part of the Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010, says that all employers, including those of religious persuasion, must provide contraception and birth control products to their employees.

The University group Students for Life, along with Campus Ministry, organized the “Rally for Religious Freedom” to protest the mandated law, which would affect institutions including the University. The event’s official Facebook page says that the issue at heart was not contraception or healthcare, but that it “is a matter of moral principle and religious liberty.”

Theology professor Dr. Matthew Sutton delivered the keynote address for the rally, where he compared the mandate against other private rights. The government doesn’t force conscientious objectors to go to war, Sutton said, or non-profit organizations to pay taxes, and asked why Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraceptive care.

During Sutton’s speech, members of the counter-rally walked onto the Great Lawn with signs protesting the church’s position on the mandate.

Sergeant Michael Buccellato of Public Safety stopped the students, and directed them to one part of the Great Lawn. The counter-rally did not have a pre-assigned area, he said.

Buccellato said he had no problem with the counter-protesters voicing their opinions, as long as they were respectful and did not disrupt the speeches.

Following the speeches, students representing both viewpoints of the mandate engaged in a series of debates with each other. The debates revolved around such topics as the legality of  the mandate, discussions on the history of the Catholic Church and the philosophy of religion.

Maurice Aufderheide, president of Students for Life, found himself in a debate with counter-protester Luis Quinones. The two were discussing the legality of the mandate and although they were in the middle of a debate, both sides felt that the other would be able to change his respective mind.

“I feel like it’s important to talk,” Quinones said during the debate. “But at the end of the day, I’m still going to go home and think I’m right.”

Aufderheide said the beneficiary in the debates might be those who are undecided on the issue. “Other people might hear part of the conversation and have it strike a chord with them,” he said.

Vice President of University Ministry Dr. Pam Shea Byrnes said she believed the rally was a continuation of the efforts of the Catholic bishops, one of the strongest opponents against the law. “The students heard that call to stand up for religious liberty, and stand up for our rights as Americans,” she said.

During the days leading up to the rally, many people disagreeing with the University’s stance on the HHS mandate voiced their opinions on the event page on Facebook. Vice President of Students for Life James Finnegan said the group invited the opposition to come to the rally in response.

“We extended a hand across the aisle and invited students who don’t share our opinion, because we want to reach an understanding on what separates us,” he said.

The counter-rally was organized on a private Facebook page viewable only to a select few, its participants said.

Those in opposition had different reasons for protesting the rally, which ranged from legal to philosophical arguments.

Dean Jauregui said since the Catholic Church does not pay federal taxes, they should not have a say in what goes on in the government. “Just as they feel that the federal government has no right in telling them what they can do, the church has no right to tell the government what they can and can’t do,” he said.

Matthew Jacobs said he was adopting a secular point of view in that contraception should be available to all people in the United States. “Contraception should be accessible to everybody regardless of what they believe or what the providers believe themselves,” he said.

Campus Minister Andrew Scott started the event with a speech, asking those present to imagine something they consider immoral, and then ask themselves how it would feel to have someone force you to violate it. This is what the mandate was asking the church to do, Scott said.

Senior Amanda Spencer spoke at the podium briefly and recognized that those in opposition to the rally were welcomed, and that both sides present showed enthusiasm in the student body for what students truly believe.

Finnegan later announced that more than 200 signatures were collected to send to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to not support the mandate.

Byrnes said she felt proud the two sides were able to come together peacefully and discuss their viewpoints.

“Things like this happen every day,” she said referring to the speeches given. “The conversations happening represent an alternative to the rhetoric, an alternative to the angry speeches that accomplish nothing but making people go further into their own sides.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Yu, Staff Writer.

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Anthony O'Reilly
Anthony O'Reilly, News Editor
Anthony has been one of the most, if not the most, loyal person at this paper. His passion and his dedication to reporting and production is unparalleled. In the last few weeks, he has demonstrated the qualities of a leader and a coach that are required for this position. I have nothing but confidence that Anthony will do a great job. He will serve you, the reader, by providing the most honest, objective news possible. —Terence Cullen News Editor, Emeritus
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