STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Nancy Snyder says she kept quiet when abortion was legalized and prayer in schools was eliminated. Not this time.
"They did it for prayer, they did it for abortion, and they're not going to do it for our health care," the 70-year-old nurse from Philipsburg, Pa., said Wednesday as she and her husband Robert, 74, a retired coal miner, waited in a long, snaking line for Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter's town hall meeting.
"We're not standing back this time," Snyder said.
Instead, the Snyders and many Americans like them are adding their voices to a populist backlash evident in the taunts, jeers and rants at lawmakers' health care forums around the country in the past week and a half. The contentious sessions highlight the difficulty for President Barack Obama and the Democrats as they push for a comprehensive remaking of the nation's health care system.
Many of those raising their voices and fists at the town halls have never been politically active. Their frustration was born earlier this year with government bailouts and big spending bills, then found an outlet in the anti-tax Tea Parties in April and has simmered in the punishing recession.
In some cases, it's been nurtured by talk radio and Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project, which seeks to unify Americans around nine values such as honesty, hope and sincerity and 12 principles, including, "I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable."
There is an element of organized opposition, just as on the other side unions and Obama's political organization are trying to turn out supporters to town halls and other events. The insurance industry lobby, America's Health Insurance Plans, is encouraging workers to attend town hall events to make their views known. So is the group Conservatives for Patients' Rights.
Still another group, Americans for Prosperity, has two buses emblazoned with the slogan "Hands off our Health Care!" that are traveling around the country to rallies and town halls, including Specter's. At the town halls, small groups of volunteers circulate petitions opposing any legislation allowing greater government involvement.
But it's not just about organization.
"I don't want someone else to select and say this is what you can and can't have," Nancy Snyder said.
"Nobody told us to come," she added. "I float my own boat."
The protesters have several concerns, but a unifying emotion is distrust of the government and federal intrusion into individual liberties or personal choices.
The emerging movement is almost the mirror image of the grass-roots campaign that helped sweep Obama into office by pulling in people who'd never been politically active. This time Obama is seeing the other side of what can happen when people are motivated, connect over the Internet and seemingly reach a tipping point that turns them from onlookers into activists.
"You have awakened a sleeping giant," one woman told Specter at a town hall meeting he held Tuesday in Lebanon, Pa.
Protesters interviewed at Specter's town hall events in central Pennsylvania this week were almost exclusively white, conservative and working class. But they ranged in age and their concerns went beyond health care to deficit spending, taxes, government growth and other issues. Many contradicted claims from Democratic leaders that their protest was manufactured by lobbyists or that they represented an orchestrated opposition led by Republicans or national conservative groups.
"I had it on my calendar before town halls became the big thing," said Jennifer Moeny, 32, a stay-at-home mom who attended Specter's town hall in State College on Wednesday. "I just came to voice my opposition. ... They should be open and honest instead of ramming it through."
For many opponents the health care overhaul amounts to the final straw. After seeing Obama bail out banks and car dealers, push a major energy bill and pass a $787 billion economic stimulus package that hasn't driven down unemployment, overhauling the $2.5 trillion U.S. health care system is a step too far.
"This is all being pushed way too fast. It's just being rammed down our throat," said Bette Jackson, a retiree from State College. "I agree we need health care reform, but I don't want the government taking over."
Nick Sidorick, 38, who said he owns a sports bar in Clearfield, Pa., drove an hour to attend his first town hall Wednesday after staying up until 2 a.m. the night before making signs to protest government intrusion. "I work 14 hours a day and I can't get ahead because of what the government takes from me,
"It's just exhaustion, I guess," Sidorick said of his motivation to attend.
A volunteer for Americans for Prosperity, Ron Rutigliano, 41, a high school teacher from Long Island, N.Y., said his parents grew up in Italy and he's seen firsthand the government-run system there, which he said provides poor care.
Democrats' plan would "just take away from the person that has a full-time job, that's been doing the right thing," Rutigliano said.