WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has been playing “rope-a-dope” with Catholic bishops and evangelicals for two and a half years, and it seems certain now the regime’s contraception mandate will have to be settled by the Supreme Court.

Boxing genius Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s tutor, portrayed the technique as one fighter (the government, in this instance) pretending to be in a defensive slouch on the ropes while the other (the bishops) swings away wildly and misses, of course.

Ever since the Obama administration announced in the fall of 2010 that it would order religious institutions to provide health insurance coverage for contraception and related reproductive services, the two contenders have been bobbing and weaving waiting for the other to give up.

The federal rules, written under the eye of Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, are a naked frontal assault on the First Amendment’s guarantees against government interference with religion and of freedom of worship.

Keep in mind that as the Obama administration matures, it increasingly views the Constitution as an annoyance and an obstacle to be avoided instead of a set of hallowed principles; and, that former Kansas Gov. Sebelius, raised Catholic, came here having been roundly denounced by Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann. He publicly asked her not to present herself for Communion because of her political links to a late-term abortion provider.

Initially, the Sebelius rules sought to define what a church institution is. With the bishops in the lead, religious organizations pressured the government to narrow its claims on how to define a church, charity, college or school.

Last February, the government published its “final” rules, to be implemented no later than Aug. 1, as part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I spoke last week with a lawyer representing a Catholic institution that is facing federal fines ranging up to $60 million a year if it doesn’t comply with the regulation. Obama has backed off in his new regulation from some of its powers of definition, and has offered to allow charities and schools to set up some kind of “blind” company that would provide contraceptive services and related items purportedly for free.

“How do we get to this point in the first place?” he asked. “The Bill of Rights is a restraint on government,” not a guide on how government can use them to interfere with people’s freedoms.

The public comment period for this latest rule has ended and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reacted by saying, essentially, that the government has merely changed the shavings in the ice cream from iron to crystal.

“The latest proposal,” the bishops wrote, “requires coverage of sterilization, contraception, and drugs and devices that can cause abortions (all contrary to Catholic teaching.)” They do not prevent disease, the bishops said, which is at odds with the stated purpose of the Affordable Care Act.

Kevin Keenan, spokesman for Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone, said the diocese supports this position.

The Catholic Healthcare Association, which speaks for most Western New York Catholic hospitals, also opposes the new rule.

The bishops and 26 other plaintiffs are suing in federal court to block it. “This is our first suit against the government in our history,” the Catholic lawyer said, sadly.

As the Aug. 1 deadline nears, is there any “give” in Sebelius? Reuters reported that in a recent speech, she seemed vexed at opponents to the health care program.

“This is the law of the land,” she said. “Let’s get on board, let’s make this work.”

Democrats won’t yield on this, lest they lose their phony “Republican war on women” mantra.