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Obamacare: Supreme Court orders new look at university’s lawsuit

The Supreme Court on Monday ordered an appeals court to consider the underlying merits of Liberty University’s lawsuit – including whether Obamacare violates religious freedom.

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The Fourth Circuit case comes at a time when the Catholic Church and a number of associated organizations are waging battles in federal courts to have a portion of the ACA struck down on religious grounds.

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They argue that the government requirement that employers provide health-care coverage including certain forms of contraception violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.

In its brief filed in February 2011 to the Fourth Circuit, lawyers for the Obama administration said Liberty University’s religious objections to the health-care law were “insubstantial.”

The brief says the university objected to “abortions,” but had failed to demonstrate how ACA funds would be used to fund such a procedure.

“The Free Exercise Clause does not excuse individuals from compliance with neutral laws of general applicability,” Neal Katyal, then acting solicitor general, wrote in his brief.

“The minimum coverage provision is a law of general applicability because it does not impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief,” he said.

Mr. Katyal said that providing a religious exemption in the ACA also does not amount to excessive entanglement of government and religion.

The measure, entitled “religious conscience exemption,” is designed for those who object to the receipt of government benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The only significant group in the United States to satisfy that criterion is the Old Order Amish.

The ACA does not have an exemption for someone who objects to required payments related to a particular form of medical care, Katyal said. He added that Liberty University and its employees were not eligible for a religious exemption because they participated in the interstate health market.

Mr. Staver wrote in his Fourth Circuit brief that the ACA subjects religious followers to unequal treatment in a kind of “religious gerrymander” mapped out by Congress.

“The exemptions for some, but not all, religious beliefs are particularly problematic since they grant preferred status only to certain religious adherents,” he wrote.

The ACA exemption, he said, is a form of religious discrimination by the government in favor of some religious groups and against others.

“Plaintiffs, who have religious objections to the compelled purchase of a prescribed health insurance product, will be subject to penalty but those who have similar religious objections will be exempt because they are members of specified religious sects,” he said.

“Plaintiffs will not be permitted to opt out of paying for medical procedures that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs, but will be faced with the choice of compromising their religious beliefs or paying a penalty,” he wrote in his brief.

Staver noted that a federal judge had rejected his clients’ concerns about funding abortions. The judge said there are provisions in the law to prevent such payments.

The lawyer countered, “While objection to funding abortion is certainly of vital importance to Plaintiffs, it is not the only aspect of the Act that burdens Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”

The case is Liberty University v. Geithner (11-438).


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