In a somewhat unusual maneuver, the high court agreed to send one of several cases challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA) back to a federal appeals court to consider the underlying merits of the lawsuit – including whether the measure violates religious freedom.
In late June, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to uphold the ACA as a valid exercise of Congress’s taxing authority. The ruling forced the dismissal of a handful of other cases challenging the reform law. Among them was an appeal filed on behalf of Liberty University, a small Christian college in Lynchburg, Va.
Unlike the other cases being held pending the high court’s June decision, Liberty University’s case arrived at the Supreme Court after being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
The appeals court had ruled 2 to 1 that the federal Anti-Injunction Act prevented the appellate judges from considering the underlying merits of Liberty University’s lawsuit. So Liberty University never received a ruling at the appeals court on the individual allegations it was making in its complaint.
That’s what the Supreme Court on Monday ordered be done.
Mathew Staver, a lawyer representing Liberty University, had asked the court to reinstate the lawsuit and send it back to the Fourth Circuit to address the merits of the unresolved claims.
The court asked the Obama administration what it thought of the request. Administration lawyers told the court that they did not object. US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli added, however, that his office believed Liberty’s claims were without merit.
It is unclear how the Fourth Circuit will view Liberty’s newly focused case, but the three-judge panel was not particularly friendly to Liberty’s lawsuit the first time around.
The unresolved aspects of the suit involve the ACA’s requirement that companies with 50 or more employees provide a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.
The suit also alleges that the reform law forces members of Liberty University’s community to jettison their religious beliefs by paying into a required health-care system that they believe supports and funds abortions.
The suit charges that a religious exemption included in the ACA violates the First Amendment prohibition on excessive entanglement of government and religion. The ACA places the government in a position to decide which religions are authentic and deserving of an exemption and which are not, the suit says.
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.
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).