Starting Aug. 1, the owners of many for-profit businesses are being forced to pick between violating their beliefs and paying stifling fines as the federal contraception mandate goes into effect.

This initial implementation of the mandate "marks the beginning of the end of religious freedom in our nation," said Christen Varley, executive director of Conscience Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that works to defend religious freedom and conscience rights.

In a statement released shortly before the mandate was scheduled to go into effect, Varley explained that as of August 1, many employers would be faced with the "unimaginable choice" of denying their faith or paying crippling fines that could put them out of business.  

She stressed the need for Americans to "stand up and make our voices heard," saying that if we do not, "it is only a matter of time before our other liberties come under direct assault."

The first day of August marks the initial implementation of a controversial federal mandate that requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
The mandate has not yet taken effect for non-profit organizations that do not currently provide this coverage due to their religious beliefs. A temporary "safe harbor" has been granted to these groups, delaying the implementation of the mandate for them until Aug. 1, 2013.

Although the federal government has promised an "accommodation" for these religiously-affiliated organizations, this promise has not yet materialized, and various suggestions put forward by the administration have been criticized as being inadequate to fully protect religious freedom.

For-profit private employers, however, do not qualify for the one-year "safe harbor" and are fully subject to the mandate as soon as they begin or renew an insurance plan anytime on or after Aug. 1, 2012. Failure to comply with the mandate results in fines of $100 per day, per employee, which could add up to millions of dollars annually for some companies.

On July 27, a federal judge in Colorado granted a temporary injunction for Hercules Industries, blocking the mandate from being enforced against the Colorado-based manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning units.

Although hailed as an important victory, the injunction is temporary and does not apply to any other companies.

Andy Newland, vice president of Hercules Industries, said that the mandate seemed to contradict the idea of America as "a country that was created for freedom from religious persecution."

"For anyone who has been asked to compromise their principles, frustration is an understatement," he said. "We've put 50 years into building a company with a sound history and a strong legacy. The government says either we compromise what we believe, or we pay a fine."

Newland argued that preventing family businesses from running their companies according to their morals and principles is "a dangerous slope to start going down."

"We'll end up with businesses operating with no ethical or moral principles at all," he said.

Hercules Industries is one of more than 50 plaintiffs that have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate.

While these lawsuits will continue to move forward in the courts, proponents of religious liberty warn that the current implementation of the mandate only solidifies the idea that for-profit employers can be forced to act against their religious convictions.

"August 1st will be remembered as the day our most cherished liberty was thrown in a government dumpster and hauled away," said Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate, a non-partisan group that encourages Catholics to be faithful to Church teaching through their political activity.

"While the courts have provided a reprieve for one family business in Colorado, the government will never be able to repair the broken conscience of thousands of others until this mandate is removed," he said.