Students from several D.C. universities gathered Thursday morning to show support for new federal regulations that require most religiously affiliated employers to provide coverage for birth control in their health care plans.

The ruling has ignited a heated debate between those who consider the mandate a violation of religious freedom and organizations that support the new policy.

Catholic Students for Women’s Health, an organization which includes pro-choice groups from American, Catholic and Fordham Universities, held a press conference at the National Press Club to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ objection to the mandate.

H*yas for Choice Outreach Coordinator Tanisha Humphrey (COL ’12), who spoke at the conference, said that the purpose of the event was to lend support to the mandate and to let bishops know that not all Catholics agree with their views on birth control.

“Catholic women use contraceptives at the same rate as their non-Catholic peers,” she said. “It’s important for Catholic women [and] Catholic students to stand up and say that this is something that’s important to us, too, and that being Catholic is not synonymous with being against birth control.”

Headliners at the event included former Lt. Gov. of Maryland Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who addressed the necessity of separation between church and state.

“The bishops should not use the power of government to do the things they [themselves] cannot do,” she said.

Catholic University student Erick Orantes added that men have an important role to play in the ongoing debate.

“Men should rise with women to fight the injustices that shake society,” he said.

Kieran Raval (COL ’13), a Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, disagreed with the conference’s take on the issue, noting that the mandate is not a question of health but rather of religious freedom under the First Amendment.

“It perplexes me what these folks are actually protesting,” he said. “What’s under attack here is the right of the church to practice its religion without interference.”

“The vast number of the American people are not comfortable with [the mandate],” he added. “When religious liberty is attacked for one church, what’s to say that the government isn’t going to tell Muslims to eat pork or order the Amish to give up their lifestyles?”

Humphrey hoped that the conference would make university administrators aware of student opinion on the legislation.

“I think it is important for university officials to realize that their students are invested in this and that we care and that we’re not going to just be silent while they decide about our health concerns,” she said. “Catholic, non-Catholic; this is a women’s issue.”

Hoya Staff Writer Matthew Strauss contributed to this report.

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