By Jennifer Marshall

Yesterday afternoon, some of the most thoughtful ones were at the Heritage Foundation, as Kate O’Beirne, president of the National Review Institute, and I hosted an event called “Women Speak Out: Obamacare Tramples Religious Liberty.” (Watch the archived program here.)

Religious liberty is an early casualty in Obamacare’s collision course with liberty. It won’t surprise readers of the Corner that there are plenty of women who have something to say about that.

Yesterday they included Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (R., N.Y.), who was joined by Maggie Karner of Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod (LCMS) Life and Health Ministries; Pia de Solenni of Diotima Consulting, LLC; Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s Forum.

Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate forces employers to provide health-insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization — regardless of moral or religious objections to such services. The “religious exemption” is pitifully narrow — the only ones to escape are houses of worship that meet a strict, four-part government test.

As for other employers with religious convictions against the Obama administration’s mandated coverage? They’re faced with the unacceptable choice to violate conscience or drop coverage and pay a hefty fine.

Colorado Christian University (CCU) will face fines of $500,000 per year beginning in 2014, the Becket Fund’s Windham estimated. How many scholarships would $500,000 cover? she asked. “That’s the price of practicing their faith.” That question was particularly compelling to a CCU scholarship student in the audience for the event.

Americans are right to be alarmed at this “fine on faith” from the Obama administration. It’s one of our first close-ups of what Obamacare will look like in practice.

There’s been plenty of coverage of the controversy, much of it misleading. We’ve seen a willful neglect of the many women’s voices speaking out against the anti-conscience mandate — and a willful neglect of the core issue at stake. That issue is liberty, and most immediately, religious liberty.

The panelists spoke for themselves about this first freedom, and why guarding it is so essential to our welfare as individuals and the welfare of the nation generally. Religious ministries provide vital services across the country. As Karner of LCMS said:

Religious people have some “street cred” to bring to the table when we are talking about public health and the good of our society.  Faith-based organizations, no matter what denomination or creed, have a long history of serving their neighbors in need. . . . But we can only do so if we are given the freedom to work within the framework of our beliefs.  The HHS mandate does not allow that. It does not allow for the free exercise of our First Amendment religious rights.

We also set the record straight about the basic facts. First, with this mandate, the Obama administration has attacked religious liberty, and it has not compromised. Despite talk of “accommodation,” the final wording was published in the Federal Register on February 15 with no change from the original version — the one that even liberal columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post called “a breach of faith.”   Well, under the final rule, the mandate hasn’t changed since he wrote that.

Religious employers — Catholic hospitals, Christian schools, and faith-based soup kitchens among them — will be forced to provide and pay for insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs such as the morning-after pill and the week-after drug Ella (along with contraception and sterilization) even if these products and procedures conflict with their religious beliefs.

Yesterday, several of our panelists represented religious viewpoints that will be trampled by this mandate.

But every Americanshould take this personally. Why? Because under Obamacare, government mandates what insurance plans must cover, what employers must offer, and what individuals must buy. There is no way out.

This anti-conscience mandate is only the beginning of Obamacare’s mandates. It’s an ominous sign of what’s to come when the 2,700-page law is fully implemented.

What will Obamacare require on other matters of deeply personal religious and moral significance — prenatal care, end-of-life issues, parental authority for minors’ health decisions?

Obamacare has handed the moral compass to bureaucrats for our most personal health care decisions. This is only the beginning of the conflicts. Obamacare must go.