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Federal judge dismisses health care challenge

A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] ruled [opinion] Tuesday that Congress acted within its constitutional powers in passing the health care reform law [text; JURIST news archive] and that the law does not violate the religious freedom of plaintiffs who challenged the law. Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed the suit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice [advocacy website] on behalf five individuals, three of whom refuse to use medicine, arguing that doing so indicates a lack of trust in God, and two of whom believe in holistic medicine that they contend will not be covered by insurance. Kessler found that Congress had the power to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), including the requirement that all individuals purchase insurance, under the Constitution's Commerce Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] which gives Congress broad powers to regulate economic activity. She then found that the individual mandate does not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [42 USC § 2000bb text], which generally prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion, even through laws of general applicability, absent a compelling government interest. Since the PPACA allows individuals to make a payment in lieu of coverage and the individual mandate is essential to the PPACA, "the Court conclude[d] that (1) [the individual mandate] does not place a substantial burden on the exercise of Plaintiffs' Christian faith, and (2), even assuming that it does, it is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest."

The health care reform law is the subject of numerous legal challenges and inconsistent rulings across the country. Last week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) asked federal judge Roger Vinson to clarify that states must continue to enact the PPACA [JURIST report] as the government appeals from Vinson's January ruling finding the law unconstitutional. A Virginia appeals court is scheduled to hear challenges to two conflicting lower-court rulings in May—one upholding the legislation and the other invalidating part of it. In December, a judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that the individual mandate provision is unconstitutional [JURIST report] but left the remainder of the law intact. Earlier that month, a judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia dismissed [JURIST report] a lawsuit challenging a provision of the health care reform law. In October, a federal judge in Michigan ruled [JURIST report] that the law is constitutional under the Commerce Clause.

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