TAMPA — The servants of the Lord wore red as always, and the servants of the law wore pinstripes. But the annual Red Mass for Tampa's legal community struck a new chord of civil disobedience.
Bishop Robert Lynch, leader of nearly a half-million Tampa Bay Catholics, surprised two dozen judges and 300 lawyers Wednesday by promising to thwart the federal health care law. It was a departure from his traditional homilies on the virtues of judicial wisdom.
If draft regulations aren't changed, Lynch said, the Diocese of St. Petersburg will no longer provide health insurance for its 2,300 employees.
Instead, he said, diocesan employees would be paid a cash sum and told to find their own insurance. The health care law, expected to be in full force by 2014, allows that.
"I'm extremely uncomfortable with even thinking of such a thing," Lynch said, speaking at the noon Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa.
But he said the church is at a "moment of history" in which it must take a stand for "religious liberty and individual moral conscience."
Lynch didn't name specific portions of the health care law, but the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops recently condemned draft regulations that require private health care plans to cover contraceptives. The proposed plans provide some exemptions for religious organizations but the church says they don't go far enough.
The diocese's existing health insurance plans do not cover sterilization, male sexual enhancement drugs like Viagra, or contraceptives.
"We don't know what final regulations will come out," said diocese spokesman Frank Murphy, "but what's been drafted so far is unacceptable."
After Wednesday's service, many of the lawyers and judges leaving church were uncharacteristically reluctant to talk. "I just came for the Mass," said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ron Ficarrotta. Judges wore their robes to the Mass and occupied the first four rows. Most received Communion.
Bankruptcy lawyer Scott Lilly said he found fascinating the bishop's advocacy of civil disobedience. The sermon was delivered just blocks away from Occupy Tampa.
"It's a sign of the times," Lilly said. "We are on the verge of civil disobedience. Five years ago, I wouldn't have said that was possible."
Mark Robens, a second-year Stetson University law student, said his faith is the reason he wants to practice law, but he agrees with the bishop. "He cannot compromise."
The Red Mass has its origins in the 13th century, first celebrated in France, Italy and England. The color red is representative of the Holy Spirit, believed by Catholics to be the provider of wisdom. The TampaBay Catholic Lawyers Guild started the tradition here in the early 1990s. It has always welcomed lawyers and judges of all faiths to the Mass.
Guild president Karl Stevens said Bishop Lynch never before issued such a blunt message. "But he's always been a 'call-them-as-I-see-them' kind of guy, and the bishop really believes the time has come."
The venue, he said, couldn't have been better.
"These are lawyers who become officeholders and make the laws. The bishop may have planted a seed that will one day take root."
Controversy is new to Tampa Red Masses, but has arisen before at the annual Red Mass for the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Ginsburg refuses to go anymore after being subjected to a "sermon that was outrageously anti-abortion," she said.
This year, Chief Justice John Roberts joined associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito for the service. All are Roman Catholic except Breyer, who is Jewish.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com.