Our bishops have rightly reacted with concern, alarm and righteous anger to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate and subsequent "accommodation" that faith-based institutions must offer employer-provided health insurance that includes coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization.

This mandate virtually requires religious organizations such as Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable outreach programs to violate their religious beliefs or face being punished with stiff fines and penalties or close their doors. Our bishops have called this an assault on religious freedom and have called on all people of goodwill to fight this serious violation of the First Amendment.

Through this mandate, the government basically is telling religious organizations they cannot act, function or perform according to what they believe, what they hold sacred and what they hold as holy and undeniable truths.

Make no mistake about it. This is not hysteria nor hyperbole on the part of our bishops. This is an all-out frontal assault on our moral teaching by our government.

We can be proud that our own archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has been among the most vocal in warning about this assault on our freedom. He wrote a column in the Feb. 2 Catholic Standard where he said the mandate "violates both our faith conviction and our freedom."

Cardinal Wuerl wrote, "In upholding the HHS regulation, the administration has ignored the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and has denied Catholics the most fundamental freedom, religious liberty."

You think the cardinal is overreacting? Consider this:

- The Supreme Court just recently overturned a ruling backed by the Obama Administration that held a religious organization does not have the right to control its hiring and firing according to its religious belief;

- The U.S. Army chief of chaplains tried to suppress having read by Catholic military chaplains a letter against the HHS mandate written by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. It was not until Archbishop Broglio complained that the suppression violated the First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion that the matter was resolved;

- San Francisco lawmakers several years ago unsuccessfully tried to outlaw circumcisions, a ritual important to Jews; and

- Catholic Charities in many areas, including Washington, D.C., had to cease its adoption services because the law required them to place children in homes of same-sex couples.

Cardinal Wuerl was spot on when he wrote that "there can no longer be any doubt that religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy."

What adds to the evilness of this HHS mandate is the arguments being made in favor of it. We're told that a majority of Catholics support the use of birth control. So what? People cheat on their taxes - does the government now force everyone do so? If a person chooses to violate the teachings of the Catholic (or any) Church, where does the government get the right to mandate that everyone else must also do so?

We are told that this is about providing access to "needed and helpful" preventive services to women. That access already exists. Right now there are plenty of clinics (many funded by very flush Planned Parenthood) that provide free or low-cost contraceptives and abortion to women. The Catholic Church's refusal to foot the bill for services it considers immoral and against its teachings do not diminish the availability or the affordability of those services.

We are told this is not about abortion and contraception, but about women's health. Really? Don't women get broken arms? Don't women get sinus infections? Don't women get diabetes? How come there is no federal mandate making prevention of those conditions available at no cost? See what is happening - critics of the mandate are being disarmed by inferring their opposition is based on a lack of care for women and their health issues.

We are told that this mandate does not force Catholics to participate in using contraceptives or abortifacients or sterilization. No, but it does require them to finance those for others. It does require them use their money for practices they consider against the teaching of their faith.

Let's also remember, that the laymen and laywomen who work for the Catholic Church freely choose to do so and know who their employer is before they sign on. Not one of my co-workers is conscripted. All of my co-workers are free to find other employment should their desire to have free contraceptives and abortifacients trump their desire to work where they work.

I am reminded of a Christian friend of mine who used to work as a secretary to a rabbi. Because her office was located in a synagogue, and because the synagogue followed the tenets of the faith that it taught, she was required to follow the kosher laws of her workplace.

Beyond the obvious proscriptions against ham sandwiches and cheeseburgers, she had to be careful what foods she brought to work with her. She learned that certain types of bread, marshmallows and even bubble gum could not be consumed on the synagogue property. Also, Hostess cupcakes and nacho cheese Doritos were also no-nos.

They were the rules she, a non-Jew, willingly followed as she worked for that religious organization.

To me, it all comes down to this. The First Amendment guarantees us a right to free practice of our religion. It does not guarantee a right to access to free contraception and free abortion-inducing drugs and free sterilization. The First Amendment protects us from being bullied into violating the teachings of our faith. If one does not want to follow the laws of the Church, that is between a person and God. It is not the government's role to force religions to conform to what it wants them to believe.

We must stand with our bishops on this one.