Washington judge tosses healthcare lawsuit, count now at 3-2

The Colorado Statesman

A Washington, D.C., judge Tuesday threw out a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s health care reform law.

With Tuesday’s ruling, the Obama administration is up 3 to 2 in the number of judges who have upheld the law versus those who ruled all or parts of it unconstitutional. The rulings also reflect the politics of the presidents who appointed the judges; the three judges ruling in favor were all appointed by Democrats; the two who ruled against were both appointed by Republicans.

Colorado is one of 26 states joined in a lawsuit filed in Florida against the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A Florida judge last month ruled the entire law unconstitutional, based on its mandate that individuals purchase health insurance. The Florida judge, Robert Vinson, did not impose an injunction to halt implementation of the law, as was requested by the plaintiffs, instead writing that health care reform should be decided by Congress, not the courts.

Tuesday’s ruling came from the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. and was issued by Senior Judge Gladys Kessler. The case, filed in July, was brought by five plaintiffs who were represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit pro-life, pro-Christian public law firm founded by Pat Robertson.

The plaintiffs argued that the law violated their First Amendment rights with regard to freedom of religion. Three of them said in the initial court filing they believed God would heal any illnesses or injuries, and so they did not need health insurance, and when the time came they would not apply for Medicare.

In her ruling Kessler noted a plaintiffs’ argument that said the ACA’s minimum coverage requirement would conflict with their Christian beliefs because “it requires them to perform an act that implies that they doubt God’s ability to provide for their health.”

“Accepting these allegations as true,” she wrote, “the conflict alleged between [the ACA] requirements and plaintiffs’ Christian faith does not rise to the level of a substantial burden,” a minimum requirement set forth in the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, upon which the plaintiffs’ claims were based.

Under the RFRA, Kessler wrote, “the focus is… not on the centrality of the religious exercise to the adherent’s own religion, but on whether the adherent’s sincere religious exercise is substantially burdened. That can be defined as when a government action puts ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.’”

Kessler dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, pointing out that they failed to provide any facts that showed purchasing health insurance would be anything other than a minimal burden on their Christian faith, an allowable exception under the RFRA. She also noted that it was “unclear” that the law would put “substantial pressure” on the plaintiffs to modify their behavior or violate their beliefs, since the law allows them to pay a “shared responsibility payment” in lieu of getting heath insurance. She also dismissed the “God will provide” claim, noting that the plaintiffs pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes, which “present the same conflict with their belief that God will provide for their medical and financial needs.” Finally, Kessler said the law also falls under another RFRA exception: that the ACA’s individual mandate serves a “compelling public interest.”

Tracey Schmaler, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said Tuesday the department welcomes the ruling, “which marks the third time a court has reviewed the Affordable Care Act on the merits and upheld it as constitutional. This court found — as two others have previously — that the minimum coverage provision of the statute was a reasonable measure for Congress to take in reforming our health care system. At the same time, trial courts in additional cases have dismissed numerous challenges to this law on jurisdictional and other grounds. The Department will continue to vigorously defend this law in ongoing litigation.”

Kessler noted early in her ruling that the issue will eventually need resolving from the U.S. Supreme Court, and that’s where she and Attorney General John Suthers agree.

The “controversy surrounding this legislation is significant, as is the public’s interest in the substantive reforms contained in the Act,” Kessler wrote. “It is highly likely that a decision by the United States Supreme Court will be required to resolve the constitutional and statutory issues which have been raised.”

“We couldn’t agree more,” said Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com