Donald Lambro

Obama's law "harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith," Kurtz wrote.

The Obama administration tried to end the controversy by offering a compromise that would let women employed by non-profit religious organizations to receive coverage that was not paid for by their employer.

But more than 45 religious groups, Catholic dioceses and prominent educational institutions, like the University of Notre Dame, flatly rejected that approach and sued.

Mark L. Rienzi, senior attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who is representing the Sisters of the Poor, explained that the nuns would have to sign a paper requesting that their insurance, not their employer, pay for any and all birth control benefits to avoid substantial fines.

"At the end of the day, they can't be involved in certain things, and one of them is signing forms authorizing permission slips for those kinds of drugs," Rienzi told the Washington Post.

In a statement Wednesday that expressed their fears that they may be forced to end their charity work, the nuns said: "We hope and pray that we will receive a favorable outcome in order to continue to serve the elderly of all faiths with the same community support and religious freedom that we have always appreciated."

How this case will turn out is unclear, but the high court will hear arguments in two other cases that will probably be heard in March.

One concerns a Mennonite cabinet-making company in Pennsylvania that sought a religious exemption from the law for his employees. The other is the Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts business chain, whose owner argues that the law violates his freedom for religious expression.

What's at stake here is an unprecedented government denial of basic religious freedoms. For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government is demanding that medical insurance plans of religious groups must cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and even sterilization procedures, with no co-pay.

Obama's mandate, in direct violation of the Constitution, forces religious institutions to include life-ending drugs and procedures in their medical plans that are contrary to their religious teachings and for whom the sanctity of human life is a central doctrine of their faith.

This poses agonizing decisions on the part of religious people of good faith and the institutions and businesses who employ them.

"To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable," says Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

But this is not just a Catholic issue. More than 40 non- Catholic organizations that included Protestant-affiliated colleges and the National Association of Evangelicals, said they backed Catholic leaders who opposed the religious mandate. "We write in solidarity," they said in a letter to the White House.

Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, put it best when he said last year, "We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others; we simply ask that the government not impose its values on the University when those values conflict with our religious teachings."

While the administration seems to have dug in its heels in this fight, Democrats in Congress fear the issue will hurt them in the November elections.

Insiders, including the nuns' chief defender Mark Rienzi, now think the mandate will eventually be overturned.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.