Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - One of Obamacare's worst mandates that threatens to undermine our religious freedoms has run into a small, determined band of Catholic nuns.

As key parts of President Obama's health care program went into effect Wednesday, a surprising Supreme Court order delayed a provision that will force religious groups to provide birth control procedures in their health insurance plans.

In a David versus Goliath legal battle, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued the stay late Tuesday in response to a plea from the Little Sisters of the Poor, a nonprofit order of nuns in Colorado who provide charitable services to low income and indigent, elderly people.

Their complaint: that the law's mandate violates one of their most deeply-held religious beliefs opposing artificial forms of birth control and abortion procedures, and thus is an attack on their religious freedom.

That mandate forces most employers to provide health care plans that will fully pay for drugs and procedures that include birth control pills, the morning-after pill to end a pregnancy, and surgical procedures such as tubal ligation.

The nuns were not the only group seeking protection from Obama's assault on religious freedom. Sotomayor's delay applied to over 200 religious, faith-based groups that have health insurance provided by the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, a company that follows Catholic teachings on birth control.

This is the latest development in a growing controversy over the mandates and regulations that will force religious groups to offer birth control services that they consider a sin against their faith, or else pay heavy fines for refusing to do so.

And not just religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor. It also extends to colleges and universities, parochial schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare and social welfare organizations run by or associated with a church.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on December 15, 1791, states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

That is what's at stake in this widening battle over a healthcare mandate that thumbs its nose at fundamental religious beliefs that run contrary to government policy.

Earlier this week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who heads the U.S.

Conference of Catholic Bishops, complained in a letter to Obama that while some interest groups have won reprieves of one sort or another from the law, not those whose religious liberties are threatened.

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.