In either case, the Obama administration is clearly growing less confident in its current position — a requirement that religious hospitals, charities and universities provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and drugs that can cause early abortions.  “We want to resolve it in an appropriate way,” says Axelrod.     

 Yet Axelrod still refuses to concede anything on the central issue of the debate.  He maintains that “extended, affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities” should be regulated like an Apple Store or 7-11, since all employ and serve non-members. This represents a deep misunderstanding of religion itself.  Catholics serve non-Catholics precisely because that is the calling of Catholicism.  Christians serve non-Christians because that is one of their defining missions in the world.  There is nothing “extended” or “affiliated” about a Catholic shelter for abused women or the homeless.  Such institutions are Catholic in motivation, Catholic in inspiration, Catholic through and through. 

 Alexrod is still insisting on the forced secularization of religious institutions. He wants compromise without the inconvenience of making concessions. 

 What would a genuine compromise look like? Perhaps the best solution would be a health care system that subsidizes individuals to purchase health insurance directly, instead of requiring employers to provide coverage. Then people could choose an individual plan that covers contraceptives and abortifacients or not.  But this idea lies far beyond the boundaries of Obamacare. 

It is not easy to split the difference on a constitutional principle — to grant a third or a half of a First Amendment protection.  Religious charities, hospitals and universities will either be forced to pay for an insurance product that violates their conscience, or they won’t.  If religious institutions are released from this requirement, the administration might be able to secure a face-saving concession.  Religious charities and hospitals could be required to inform employees that their health insurance coverage excludes contraceptives and abortifacients. Providing such information would not violate an employer’s religious liberty.  But it would allow employees who want contraceptives to make other provisions.     

The legal issues concerning the contraception mandate are clear.  The administration’s political calculation is not.  Obama’s praise of religious charities has been the centerpiece of his religious outreach.  He has generally avoided conflicts on conscience rights.  But now – months before a presidential election – he has engaged in the most aggressive attack on the liberty of religious institutions since the 19th century.  Suddenly, staid bishops are promising civil disobedience.  College presidents are declaring defiance. Politically liberal Catholics are expressing dismay. Evangelicals are joining Catholics in solidarity.

Why didn’t Axelrod see this political disaster coming?  Whatever the reason, he sees it now.