Editor's note: Mary Matalin, a founding member of the board of Conscience Cause, a coalition opposing the Department of Health and Human Services' mandate, has worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and was counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Matalin is a CNN political contributor, author and host of a weekly nationally syndicated radio program.
(CNN) -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is the first line of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Apparently, this now only applies to the certain instances for which President Barack Obama sees fit.
In recent months, a far-reaching regulation emanating from "Obamacare" and imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services requires church-affiliated hospitals, agencies and universities to pay for services that violate their faith (such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs) in the health insurance they provide employees.
For the first time in our nation's history, the government has launched a full-fledged assault on our religious institutions to force them to pay for services that go against their religious convictions. The compromise offered by the administration allowing religious institutions a year to transition to the new system is no compromise. They are still forced to pay for services in direct conflict with their faith or incur severe penalties that could effectively drive them out of business.
This is the most despicable violation of religious liberty that this nation has ever seen. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, outlined it best when he said, "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences." A year is a pitiful concession to make when they are essentially telling people that if they do not violate their conscience, the government will put them out of business.
Catholic institutions, however, are not taking this assault lying down. This week, 43 of them have filed lawsuits across the nation challenging the mandate's intrusion on religious liberty.
This sentiment is felt not only among Catholics but also among Jewish, Protestant and other religious groups. Though these groups do not necessarily have a uniform religious teaching against some of the mandate's provisions, they do have a uniform agreement that a coercive government does not have the right to say that these religious institutions must violate their consciences.
These religious leaders realize that if government can impose these mandates against conscience rights on Catholics, what other mandates will they impose them on next?
The Obama administration and some of its allies in the press have attempted to make this a debate over contraception and tried to position opponents of the mandate as waging "war on women." Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no effort to limit access to contraceptives.
Contraceptives are widely available to women -- and men. For $9 a month, birth control pills can be purchased at major national retail chains. This is all typical Washington-speak to create a rhetorical diversion from the real issue at stake.
This debate is about whether the full force of government can be used to force religious institutions to violate their own faith and pay for services and products that violate the tenets of their teaching.
It is also a debate over how government defines a religious institution. Until this mandate, the government recognized, through tax law and other means, faith-based schools, hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens and hospice services as religious institutions. They kept a wall of separation between these institutions and the federal government.
Now, under this mandate, unless a Catholic hospital only employs Catholic staff or cares for only sick Catholics it will no longer be regarded as a religious institution and will be forced to fund products and services contrary to the institution's religious and moral beliefs. This is an unprecedented hit on the First Amendment and our nation's long-standing practice of religious liberty.
Religious leaders and people of faith from across the spectrum are speaking out to let the administration and Congress know that we cannot let this assault on religious liberty stand and that we will not allow our religious institutions to be bullied into violating their own faith or be forced to limit their good work or worse yet, be forced to shut down these services that help so many people and promote the common good.
This mandate presents a challenge to the American people. Our nation has had a long-held tradition backed by legal foundations and precedents that religious groups are allowed "the free exercise" of their beliefs.
Will we allow our religious freedom to be jeopardized? Will we open the door to other freedoms being regulated, or worse, taken away entirely by the government? The answer to our president should be simple. We cannot -- and will not -- allow this to stand.
Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.
Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Matalin.