Who gets to decide how you run your life: you or a small group of aggressive religious leaders?

In a nation that separates religion and government, the answer ought to be easy. Apparently it’s not.

As USA Today reports, the battle over birth control access has turned into a major church-state conflict. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Religious Right and their right-wing political allies are trying to deny women access to fundamental contraceptive services solely because those services don’t conform to church doctrines.

It’s outrageous that the Catholic bishops and their fundamentalist Christian accomplices think they can enlist the government to enforce religious doctrines, even if it impacts the most personal and intimate parts of Americans’ lives.

President Barack Obama initially exempted houses of worship from the birth control mandate, but that wasn’t enough for ultra-conservative church leaders. So on Feb. 10, Obama compromised further. He reconfigured Health and Human Services regulations to mandate that insurance companies, not “faith-based” organizations, pick up the tab for contraceptive coverage.

Did that make the bishops and their buddies happy? Of course not!

The Catholic hierarchy and the Religious Right want an exemption so broad that any employer anywhere can deny coverage by claiming a religious belief.

The White House is "all talk, no action" on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to an account in USA Today last week.

"There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular," Picarello said. "We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

Picarello and the bishops apparently want to remove the birth control provision from the health care law altogether. First, they claimed a concern was church-related colleges and hospitals. Now it’s any employer who wants to impose his personal religious beliefs on his workforce.  Picarello cited "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job,” said Picarello, “and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate."

Well, yeah, Mr. Picarello, you would be -- and you should be!

Americans United’s Rob Boston said in today’s USA Today report, "If the state can demonstrate that access for all women to preventive health care is a compelling interest, it can trump religious freedom. The bishops are asking for a very broad exception -- the right of private employers, not just institutions, to personally cut off access to any employee. That's a definition of religious freedom way beyond what any court has defined as religious freedom. It allows your boss to impose his religion on you."

An underlying issue here is that the Catholic hierarchy can’t face the fact that it has lost the war on contraceptives. One study found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives. The 1950s are over, and they’re not coming back. But the hierarchy is clinging to the past, and its grip is not easily loosened. 

Ultimately this isn’t just about exempting churches or even about exempting church hospitals and colleges. This is about the kind of country we’re going to be. Do we want to be a country where the government takes its orders from right-wing clergy, or do we want laws that ensure fairness, equality and freedom of conscience for all?

The bishops’ friends in Congress are pushing legislation that would gut the birth control mandate, and right-wing legal outfits are challenging the policy in federal court. In the meantime, the hierarchy and the Religious Right are certain to continue their crusade against administration policy.

President Obama must stand his ground because the direction of the nation is at stake. Sectarian lobbies must be taught that they do not have the power to dominate public policy.