U.S. Federal Judge Dismisses Religious Challenge to ACA

A federal judge found in favor of the government in a suit brought against the Affordable Care Act by litigants claiming that the Act violates their religious freedom. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the Act does not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, invalidating the request of the 5 plaintiffs in the case.

Of the five plaintiffs, three were Christians who claim that the requirement to purchase health coverage transgresses their religious belief that God will heal them of any affliction. They believe that purchasing coverage conflicts their faith, by putting them in the position of having a “back up plan” to God’s will regarding their healing. The other two claimants are adherents of holistic healing philosophies, and state that their preferred methods of dealing with health issues wouldn’t be covered under the ACA anyway. The suit was brought to court on the behalf of the plaintiffs by the American Center for Law and Justice, which is a fundamentalist Christian legal group founded by Pat Robertson, a prominent television and print evangelist.

This was one of many challenges filed against President Obama’s requirement that all U.S. residents must either buy health coverage or pay a fine, which would begin to be enforced in 2014. Kessler is the third Democratically-appointed judge to throw out a challenge to the ACA, while two judges appointed by Republicans have ruled either part of or the entire ACA as unconstitutional. According to Kessler, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to ultimately finalize the issues of constitutionality.

Justice Kessler rejected the validity of the arguments, ruling that Congress does have rights to regulate spending for health care issues based on the Commerce Clause of the ACA. She also stated that the act’s mandate (that every American must have health insurance or pay a fine) is not a separate reform, and must be viewed as an essential aspect of the law. The judge commented that anyone who objects to the mandate for religious reasons has the right to pay the fine instead; all five plaintiffs verified that they would take this course of action. “Individuals like [the] plaintiffs, who allege now that they will refuse medical services in the future, may well find their way into the health care market when they face the reality of illness or injury,” she wrote in her opinion statement.

In a published reaction to this ruling, the Justice Department, which has been in charge of addressing legal challenges to the ACA, stated: “We welcome this ruling, which marks the third time a court has reviewed the Affordable Care Act on the merits and upheld it as constitutional,” via DOJ  spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. “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.”

The Justice Department also pointed out that the law has now been affirmed as being constitutional by more court decisions than have been the opposition. Two previous federal judges dismissed lawsuits against the ACA’s individual mandate in 2010. Justice Henry Hudson in Virginia ruled that the mandatory insurance requirement was unconstitutional in December 2010, while Judge Roger Vinson of Florida decreed the whole health care reform package as unconstitutional in January. Judge Vinson has since amended his decision to allow for appeals.