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FEULNER: Unconscionable mandate

Obamacare is set to trample the sanctity of human life

"We have tried negotiation with the [Obama] administration and legislation with the Congress - and we'll keep at it - but there's still no fix. Time is running out."

Running out, that is, for many religious organizations across the country that provide services to people in need. For when Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the words quoted above, he was defending the right of the groups to serve inner-city children, the elderly, deaf, HIV/AIDS patients, developmentally disabled and homeless - and many others.

All together, 55 religious organizations have joined 23 separate lawsuits filed in district courts nationwide. Their common foe? The Obamacare anti-conscience mandate.

The mandate would force these groups to pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization. Never mind that this stands in direct opposition to a central tenet of their faith. The Obama administration is taking the Rhett Butler approach to their right to practice their religion without government interference: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Hold on, some may say. Didn't the administration carve out a religious exemption? Yes, for churches and other houses of worship. Not for religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges, charities and other nonprofits. As Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, has pointed out, the Obama administration's "conception of what constitutes the practice of religion is so narrow that even Mother Teresa would not have qualified."

So now we have government deciding who is religious enough and who isn't. Imagine what the Founding Fathers would say about that.

Many of these groups are not ones inclined toward activism or to opposing the administration. Among the plaintiffs, in fact, is the University of Notre Dame, who only three years ago invited Mr. Obama to deliver a commencement address and awarded him an honorary law degree. If this is his way of saying thanks, imagine what he must do to those who cross him.

Three evangelical institutions of higher learning - Colorado Christian University, Louisiana College and Geneva College - also are suing over the mandate. In an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, they explained that what's at stake here is much bigger than a fight about birth control:

"The Obama administration has passed a rule that will penalize our colleges with faith-based fines merely because we center our beliefs about the sanctity of human life on the Bible, not on the demands of federal bureaucrats. The administration's mandate that religious employers provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs for their faculty, staff and students is a bridge too far in America."

They call the mandate a "conscience tax." Sadly, that's a very apt description.

This debate is about what Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins has called the right of a religious organization to "live its mission" in America. Today it's about contraception, but what will it be about tomorrow? You don't have to be religious to realize that this sets a dangerous precedent - one that would seriously impinge on the freedoms of all Americans.

This anti-conscience mandate is an affront, plain and simple. Left unchallenged, it will embolden future administrations to continue to define what constitutes our most basic liberties in an increasingly narrow fashion. After all, there's always some "public good" that can be used to excuse these efforts to trample on our rights - and make us, as Father Jenkins puts it, "morally subservient to the state."

It's a shame that it had to come to this, but the Obama administration has continued to tune out all objections. Other than issuing the exemption described above - which was more of an insult than an accommodation - it has cast its lot with condoms, not conscience. It's time to let the courts decide.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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