Barack Obama is a Christian whom millions of Americans insist on thinking of as a Muslim. Mitt Romney belongs to the Mormon church, which plenty of Americans consider a non-Christian cult. If ever there was an election campaign both main candidates had an interest in keeping religion out of, you might suppose that this was it. In politics, however, some opportunities are just too tempting to pass up. Whatever chance there once was for a religious non-aggression pact evaporated after one of Mr Obama’s recent decisions gave powerful new ammunition to those who accuse him of waging a “war on religion”.

The decision in question is a gift to Republicans not only because it is controversial in itself, but also because it springs from the unloved Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, as it is nicknamed. The Republicans say they will repeal Obamacare because its main idea—making everyone buy health insurance on pain of a fine—violates personal freedom. Now the Department of Health and Human Services has planted in the weeds of the legislation something its critics call even more objectionable: nothing less than a violation of religious freedom.

The Affordable Care Act says that employers must provide health insurance to their workers (or pay a fine), and allows the government to lay down minimum standards of cover when they do so. Last summer the health department decreed that all new health-insurance policies should cover birth-control services for women, including the morning-after pill (which most pro-lifers consider a form of abortion) and sterilisation. Churches are exempt; but church-affiliated hospitals, schools and universities, most of which employ and serve people of many faiths, are not. Once the new rule comes into effect, in 2013, they will have to include such services in their insurance packages, at no extra cost to the employee.

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