WASHINGTON, January 20, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - After being deluged with complaints from outraged religious groups, Obama’s health department has dug in its heels, saying its decision to force employers to provide abortifacient birth control drugs will continue as planned - although faith-based groups will be given a year reprieve. In response, U.S. Catholic bishops have not minced words, vowing to fight the order as “literally unconscionable.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Friday that faith-based entities like hospitals and universities will have until August 1, 2013 to provide employees with free birth control as part of their insurance packages. The mandate will also force such groups to pay for sterilizations and, because the FDA has approved abortifacient drugs such as Ella as “contraception.”

The mandate is being implemented as part of the new health care legislation that was passed in March 2010 despite vigorous opposition from U.S. Catholic bishops, who called it dangerously open to being used as a means of spreading abortion.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s top abortion lobby, immediately celebrated the announcement and called on abortion supporters to thank the administration for defeating “a pressure campaign from anti-contraception groups.”

“With your help, we stood up to the large, well-funded groups that tried to put their anti-contraception beliefs ahead of women’s health,” NARAL president Nancy Keenan told supporters in an email. “We also kept the pressure on the Obama administration, and, clearly, our message was heard.”

But Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, indicated that the Catholic Church would not go down without a fight.

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

“To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable,” he continued. “It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.”

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Other faith-based groups reacted in dismay, with many seeing the decision as equivalent to the administration declaring war on religious groups that oppose the drugs.

“It is the greatest irony, that by worshiping the cult of ‘choice’ the Obama Administration has determined that religious organizations lack the freedom to act in fidelity to their beliefs,’” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic university watchdog group.  “The White House has sold the First Amendment for a few pennies of political support from the ACLU and the abortion lobby.” CNS has noted that several Catholic universities have already spoken up in protest against the coming mandate.

“If the Obama Administration cannot respect the First Amendment of the Constitution, then we must take this fight to the courts and win,” Reilly said.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) said it was “deeply disappointed” in the decision. “The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent,” said Galen Carey, NAE Vice President for Government Relations.

NAE notes that, if the unprecedentedly narrow “religious exemption” to the mandate is allowed to remain, it may be adopted in other areas of law, leading to further erosion of conscience protections.