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DOJ: Christian university may reopen health care law challenge

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday told the US Supreme Court [official websites] that it does not object [brief, PDF] to reopening a Christian university's challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) [text; JURIST backgrounder] in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website]. While Liberty University [academic website], located in Richmond, Virginia, is arguing that the PPACA violates the college's religious freedoms, the school's original claim was previously rejected [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] by the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia [official website] in 2010 and then deemed premature [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] by the Fourth Circuit less than one year later. Although the circuit court's original ruling did not directly address the merits of Liberty's claim, the Supreme Court's upholding of the PPACA in National Federal of Independent Business v. Sebelius [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in June consequently rejected all other pending PPACA appeals. Liberty's newest claim, filed after the Supreme Court's ruling, requests an evaluation of religious freedom under the PPACA based on the 5-4 decision. Specifically, the university is challenging the requirement that most individuals obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, as well as an additional provision that requires many employers to offer health insurance to their employees. The Fourth Circuit may now require both Liberty and the DOJ to file new legal briefs arguing the claim based on the Supreme Court's ruling.

The PPACA has faced numerous legal challenges since its inception in March 2010. Last month the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] upheld the dismissal [JURIST report] of a challenge to the PPACA by Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder [official website] and six other citizens due to a lack of standing. In July the US District Court for the District of Nebraska [official website] dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] filed by seven state attorneys general challenging the PPACA's health care mandates, particularly those that require all employer health care plans, including those of religious institutions, to cover contraception. In June the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that declared the PPACA constitutional centered on the "individual mandate" provision [text] of the act, which requires every person, with some exceptions for religious and other reasons, to purchase some form of health insurance by January 1, 2014, or be subject to a fee equal to either a percent of that individual's income or flat rate of $695. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts held that individual mandate is not a requirement that Americans buy insurance, since individuals who choose to pay the flat-rate fee are in full compliance with the law. The court's decision resolved four consolidated cases accepted by the court [JURIST report] in November 2011.

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