Participants at a rosary rally Aug. 30 at the state Capitol pray a series of Catholic prayers together. Critics contend some of the comments by Catholic clergy at the rallies are too political.

AMBER ARNOLD – For the State Journal

An ongoing series of prayer rallies at the state Capitol led by Catholic clergy has critics saying the gatherings are little more than Republican pep fests.

But one of the priests involved said there's nothing political about the rallies and that critics are reading too much into favorable mentions of U.S. Rep Paul Ryan, R-Janesville.

The hour-long gatherings, called rosary rallies, are held Thursdays at 7 p.m. on the Capitol steps. Most of the hour is spent in public prayer, although a priest typically offers brief comments before and after.

The first rally was held June 21 in response to a call from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a "Fortnight for Freedom" — 14 days of activism in opposition to the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate.

Local organizers are continuing the rallies every Thursday through Nov. 1 to focus people's prayers on issues such as religious liberty and opposition to abortion and contraception, said the Rev. Rick Heilman, pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Mount Horeb.

Heilman said Nov. 1 was chosen as the last rally because the weather will be turning colder and because it is All Saint's Day, during which Catholics honor all saints. He did not discount that the presidential election Nov. 6 also was a factor.

"With elections come a lot of issues that maybe sometimes we tend to ignore because our lives are busy," he said. "In an election year, people are more sensitized to these issues, and there is a great need to call upon God."

At the Aug. 16 rally, Heilman told the crowd that "amazing things are happening right here in this very place," including the failure of "this whole nonsense of recalling this strong governor" (referring to Republican Scott Walker) and "now tapping our own Paul Ryan" as a vice presidential candidate.

At the Aug. 30 rally, attended by about 100 people. Heilman again mentioned Ryan.

"No matter what his politics are, no matter whether you agree with them or disagree with them, he's a Catholic son in the diocese of Madison who was tapped to be vice president," Heilman told the crowd. "And he's a good dad, he's a good husband, and he needs our prayers, OK? Again, this is not politics. This is supporting someone who has been given possibly a very big responsibility and he is our own, OK?"

In an interview, Heilman said he "would ask people to pray for (Ryan) whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, because he's from our diocese."

Craig Spaulding, 47, of Madison, one of about a dozen counter-protesters who have been attending the rallies, doesn't buy it. "It's definitely partisan," he said. "It's all about the GOP."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, has been watching the rallies with concern. Tax-exempt groups such as churches are not to say or do anything that indicates whom they want people to vote for or against, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president. While Heilman doesn't tell people to vote for Ryan, the message is clear, she said.

"Just because he keeps saying 'this is not politics' doesn't negate the clear endorsement of Ryan," she said.

Some left-leaning religious leaders also are being criticized this election season. Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun who led the "Nuns on the Bus" tour for social justice this summer, spoke Wednesday to the Democratic National Convention. Critics said her appearance was unacceptably partisan.