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JEFFERSON CITY • Speaking to fellow Christians in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson delivered a warning to the White House.

“The fight against a federal requirement that most health plans provide free contraceptive benefits to their members “is not about contraception,” he said. “It’s about religious liberty, and we will never give up this freedom.”

Thousands of people, many wearing red T-shirts with messages such as “I will not comply” and “I stand with the Catholic Church,” roared in approval.

Catholics, Southern Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans and members of the Assemblies of God packed three floors of the rotunda at the “Rally for Religious Liberty” to protest the January announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Arguments over liberty and governmental authority being made concurrently in the U.S. Supreme Court were mentioned by speakers and those in the crowd. The rally also came on the same day that the Missouri Senate gave initial approval to a bill that allows employers to opt out of the contraception mandate.

And the rally was just one of two that drew huge crowds to the state Capitol.

Outside the Capitol, thousands of union members wearing bright orange and green shirts rallied against efforts by the Republican-led Legislature to pare back wage requirements on public works projects and to make Missouri a “right-to-work” state in which union dues cannot be a condition of employment. Rally leaders said workers’ rights are under assault.

The combined crowd for two gatherings was one of the largest in the past decade at the Missouri Capitol, which hosts events for interest groups on a nearly daily basis during the legislative session. Capitol Police provided no official crowd estimate.

The Senate was expected to debate legislation today limiting the “prevailing wage” that must be paid on some public works projects, including when rebuilding after disasters. That legislation was one of several proposals that drew the ire of the union members who gathered Tuesday.

“All these issues aren’t just union issues, they’re workers’ issues,” said Ed Finkelstein, a spokesman with the Building and Construction Trades Council. “As they affect workers, they affect the whole economy.”

The federal birth control mandate — which would require religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to include free coverage in their employee health coverage — has been called an attack on religious freedom by many Christians.

Speaking under the words of Rudyard Kipling carved into the rotunda, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet — lest we forget,” Missouri Baptist Convention executive director John Yeats called the Obama administration a “secularist government” that had “declared war on religion and freedom of conscience.”

To huge applause, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “Obama’s health care high priestess,” and compared the administration to the British monarchy during the time of the American Revolution.

“Those who bow to the god of secularism believe in the pre-eminence of their faith,” Yeats said. “So the goal is to marginalize the people who are devoted to a different faith, especially Christianity.” But, he added, “The religion of the secularist is a doomed methodology of government.”

The firestorm of protests across the country, like Tuesday’s rally here, has coalesced around an argument made mostly by conservative Christians but also by some of other faiths. The argument is that the contraception provision would force religious believers and the religious organizations they work for to violate their consciences, and was therefore an infringement on the infringing on their First Amendment right to free religious expression.

Houses of worship and their organizing authorities were exempted from the original requirement, and a later concession by the administration creating a loophole that would allow insurance companies — rather than the religious organizations themselves — to pay for products or services that violate religious tenets was largely rejected by religious leaders. On Tuesday, referring to the compromise, Carlson said, “Mr. President, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Allies of the White House have seized on some polls that show that the “religious liberty” argument to be unpopular with most American women, some of whom say the issue is about women’s health and rights.

Maggie Karner, director of life and health ministries for the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was the only woman on the podium, and one of the four major speakers. Karner said, to a standing ovation, that the issue at hand was “not about women’s issues at all.””

“It concerns all of us American citizens and our constitutional rights,” she said.

John Jost, 64, from Chesterfield and a member of St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Ellisville, said he traveled to the capital because he believed strongly in the language of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause.

“Congress shall pass no law prohibiting the free exercise of my religion,” he said. “End of story. Stay out of my religion.”

Terri Booher, 64, from of Florissant, said she made the trip with seven others from St. Sabina Church because she believes the government had been “picking away at my beliefs for too long.”

The Missouri Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception and abortions if they have religious or moral objections. Sponsor John Lamping, R-Ladue, said the effort would not apply to prescriptions based on medical need. He also said many of the provisions in the bill are already covered under current state law, though he said his bill would clarify the issue.

Sen. Maria Chappelle Nadal, D-University City, was the most outspoken opponent. “Anything that dictates what I can and cannot do with my own body is anti-woman,” she said.

The Associated Press and Elizabeth Crisp of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This replaces an earlier version with an updated crowd estimate and additional information.