Butch Comegys, The Scranton Times-Tribune, Associated Press
Nuns listen to Helen Gohsler, President of Pennsylvania for Human Life Scranton Chapter, during a Pro-Life Service held in the chapel of Holy Family Residence hosted by The Little Sisters Of The Poor in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Wednesday marked the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion.

It would be difficult to find a charitable organization more sincerely devout than the Little Sisters of the Poor — an order of Catholic nuns that cares for sick elderly people and that was founded in 19th century France by Saint Jeanne Jugan. What a shame these penitent sisters have become so inconvenient to the Obama administration.

And what a shame that public policy in the United States has come to the point where devout believers, whether nuns or owners of for-profit businesses, face the choice of obeying their consciences or the government.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling last week that bars the government from forcing the Little Sisters to be complicit in an Obamacare mandate that all employees must be given insurance coverage for contraception. The ruling remains in effect while the 10th Circuit Court considers the Little Sisters’ challenge to the mandate. At least 400 other Catholic groups covered by the same provider as the Sisters also will be shielded from Obamacare while the case plays out.

The ruling is an obvious blow to the administration and its apparent belief that it can push around religious organizations and believers as it tries to force its own agenda as to what constitutes responsible health care.

We hope it is followed by an equally powerful, and more permanent, court ruling, as well as by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the owners of Hobby Lobby, who object to providing contraception coverage to their employees on religious grounds. That case will be heard in March and most likely decided this summer.

All told, 91 lawsuits are pending against the contraception mandate, according to the Beckett Fund, which represents plaintiffs in many of the cases. Supporters of the mandate seem to have trouble understanding the objections, treating them as if they were similar to food allergies. As long as those providing the coverage are removed a step from the organization, keeping the devout from touching the offending thing, there could be little harm done, they reason. All the religious group needs to do is fill out a government form.

That was the apparent thinking behind the administration’s so-called compromise when objections first were raised. It allowed the religious organization to remove itself from actually providing coverage, but the coverage still would be provided. The order of Little Sisters in Denver said signing the form would be giving permission for something that violates its deeply held beliefs.

The First Amendment grants clear protections for the free exercise of religion, as well as against government attempts to establish a religion. Contraception is an issue about which churches preach and that is, for many, part of religious dogma. The mandate gives official government blessing to one side in this moral issue. Requiring religious people to associate themselves, even from a distance, with something that violates their conscience inhibits their right to freely exercise religion.

Government ought to do all it can to get out of the way of orders such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who do so much to provide services that otherwise would burden taxpayers. It should avoid punishing sincerely religious business owners who adhere to a code of ethics in an age when many seem ethically challenged.

Perhaps the Supreme Court appreciates the difference between a religious exemption and religious liberty. At the least, its decision to protect the Little Sisters while this case plays out is an encouraging sign.