President Barack Obama delivered the bad news himself. 

On Friday, Jan. 20, he called New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to tell him that his administration would announce later that day that it had decided not to exempt Church-affiliated institutions from a new health-care regulation requiring employers to provide free birth control and sterilizations to employees. 

But the president offered one concession: Nonprofits like Catholic hospitals, schools and charities would be given until Aug. 30, 2013, to comply with the regulation, 12 months later than most other American employers. 

“In effect,” said Archbishop Dolan in a statement later, “the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” 

‘In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.’

For many Church leaders and employers, Obama’s final decision to ignore the conscience objections — despite months of feedback from hundreds of religious representatives and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — comes as something of a surprise. As recently as November, Archbishop Dolan said he left an Oval Office meeting with Obama feeling “a bit more at peace than when I entered,” and described the president as seemingly “very open to the sensitivities” of religious believers. On numerous previous occasions — including during his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, and a later roundtable interview with Catholic journalists — the president unequivocally had pledged respect for conscience rights, religious liberty and diversity of belief. 

And now the Catholic Church finds itself in the odd position of being the primary defender of tolerance, pluralism and the principles of liberal democracy against a government that seeks to coerce citizens into behavior that violates their consciences. 

But the Catholic Church is not alone. In a Jan. 22 editorial, the Washington Post said the Obama administration “came down on the wrong side of a tough call.” 

“Requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money in a way that violates its religious principles does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views,” it said. 

As the Washington Post notes, it is irrelevant that more than two dozen states — several with zero conscience protections — currently require contraception coverage in employee health plans. It is also irrelevant that a number of Catholic universities have been found to be offering contraception in their health plans, and it is equally irrelevant that a vast number of Catholic Americans use contraception. 

That’s because contraception isn’t the issue at stake; the much more serious issue is the government’s unprecedented coercion of citizens over their conscience objections. “Never before,” notes Archbishop Dolan, “has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.” 

The Obama administration seems unlikely to reconsider this disastrous decision during an election year. Nevertheless, we are encouraged that a broad spectrum of social influencers have joined Catholic leaders, university presidents and hospital administrators in criticizing it. And we urge Catholics and all those who honor the First Amendment insistently, confidently and respectfully to demand that our government officials honor it, too.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.