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WASHINGTON – Last Wednesday, Jan. 2, was the day the Obama administration's rule went into effect that ordered all Catholic Church-related institutions, such as hospitals and schools, to buy health insurance that covers birth control.

The mandate was one of the most corrosive aspects of the presidential campaign. At the moment, the mandate appears to be in a state of restraint, or limbo. This would be consistent with the Obama administration's policies of gently slapping on the wrist crooked bankers and monopolistic companies like Google.

Many religious leaders hope it stays that way; but they are saying it privately.

Today, the issue that last summer inflamed the nation's Catholic bishops – with some, like Chicago Cardinal Francis George predicting they'd be “martyred in the public square” for defying it – is all shadows and nuance.

Just why President Obama pressed this mandate before a tough election is a great mystery. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius may have backed him into it. She is a former militant pro-choice governor of Kansas, a Catholic who has been barred from communion by the archbishop of Kansas City.

Or, the heat generated by the Catholic bishops over contraception may have fit nicely with the Democrats' charge that Republicans were waging a war on women.

The mandate, which critics say also requires Christian organizations to buy insurance for abortifacient pills, raises serious issues of conscience for Catholics, evangelicals and traditional Christians.

Buffalo-based Catholic Health, which coordinates one of the biggest and best hospital systems in the nation, said Friday that while it approves many aspects of Obamacare, the contraception mandate “strikes directly to our right to religious freedom, which is affirmed…in the Constitution.” The mandate, Catholic Health said, is contrary to “long-standing moral teachings,” adding it stands with the bishops and others in their legal fight to overturn it. But neither has said it will disobey the mandate if it passes legal muster. The issue is headed to the Supreme Court.

St. Bonaventure University, through a spokeswoman, said it will continue to provide health insurance required by state law, which includes all prescriptions. The mandate also requires coverage for sterilization. The university had no reaction to that. Canisius College, of the Jesuit tradition but legally non-sectarian, did not respond to a request for comment.

Both sides – traditional Christians and the Obama administration – appear to be waiting for two intertwined developments. Defending against lawsuits brought to stop the mandate, the administration said it will revise the rule. One implication is that now that the election is over and the war on women defeated, the government may widen the exemption for church-related institutions. The “final” rule was posted almost a year ago. It says if an institution hires or aids any others than those of its religion, it must comply. Now, the “final, final” rule is to be posted by the end of March.

Drafting the ultimate standard may be influenced by the many suits filed against the mandate. According to one count, the Christians have won six and the lions three. Just before Christmas – pardon me, “the holidays” - the influential U.S. Circuit Court here decreed a settlement where the government agreed not to press the mandate against two colleges, Belmont Abbey and Wheaton College, until the supposed new rule is published. The court didn't suspend enforcement against other institutions, but it's possible the White House took it that way.

Perhaps the president doesn't need another uproar while the ultra right in Congress is spoiling for a crisis over raising the debt ceiling. Some of those in hate radio are urging Republicans to have the “courage” to shut down the government over it.



email: dturner@buffnews.com