Health Care Law: Obama Administration Returns to Court

Law's challengers say it violates their religious freedom.

Sept. 23, 2011 — -- Lawyers for the Obama administration will once again head to court to defend the health care reform law, this time from challengers who argue it violates their religious freedom.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will be the 4th appellate court to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) today.

At issue is a key provision of the law, the individual mandate, that requires individuals to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty.

The mandate has been challenged in courts across the country. So far, one appeals court has upheld it, another has struck it down and a third dismissed two challenges on jurisdictional issues.

The Obama administration has consistently argued that Congress was well within its authority to pass the mandate because health care costs across the country were spiraling out of control.

The challenge in the D.C. circuit, Susan Seven-Sky v. Eric Holder, is brought by a conservative religious group representing four citizens. The group believes that the law violates members' religious beliefs, and says that Congress had no authority to force them into the marketplace to buy health insurance when members believe that God will protect them.

The religious group's members and lawyers at the American Center for Law and Justice argue in briefs, "The individual mandate substantially burdens their religious exercise by requiring them to either indefinitely maintain health insurance, which they sincerely believe would violate their religious belief that God will protect them from illness or injury, or pay annual penalties for declining to violate their faith."

While the ACA does offer some religious exemptions, some of the law's challengers do not qualify.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr, the administration's recently appointed solicitor general argues in briefs that a lower court judge was right to dismiss the case. The administration argues that health care is a unique market and that even though the plaintiffs in the case say they do not need health insurance, they can't ensure that an emergency might occur down the road where they will need medical care that could cost thousands of dollars.

"Congress found that, as a class, people who forego health insurance coverage and attempt to self-insure fail to pay for the medical services that they consume, and shift substantial costs to providers and insured consumers," said Verrilli.

The administration pointed out that the uninsured cost other market players nearly $43 billion in 2008.

The administration says that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution empowers Congress to regulate interstate economic activity.

The challengers argue that while Congress might be able to regulate economic activity, it cannot regulate "inactivity," or a person's choice not to enter a market place.

"People without insurance are not 'inactive,'" said Verrilli in his brief. "They actively participate in the market for health care services and shift substantial costs to other market participants."

A lower Court Judge, US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, upheld the mandate in February of 2011.

The panel hearing the case will be Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, Laurence H. Silberman, a Reagan nominee and Harry T. Edwards a nominee of Jimmy Carter.

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