A Loss in "Liberty"


By Hadley Heath

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the Obama Administration in Liberty University v. Geithner.  This case, about three years old, was given a second hearing at the appellate level after the Supreme Court declared the case was still open.  

In this most recent ruling, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court ruling from 2011 that upheld the law's individual mandate and employer mandate as constitutional.  Previously, the appellate court avoided a judgment on the merits by holding that the Tax Anti-Injunction Act barred consideration of the mandates until they were enforced. But in light of the Supreme Court decision in NFIB v. Sebelius (if you can remember back to summer 2012), the individual mandate was not considered a tax for the purposes of the Tax Anti-Injunction Act (although ultimately it was upheld as constitutional as an exercise of Congress's taxing power). 

The Liberty case was different from many of the other pre-SCOTUS cases in that it sought to strike down the individual mandate on RFRA grounds (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act).  The appeals court ruled that the mandate to buy health insurance puts no substantial burden on the religious individuals challenging it, and that the plaintiffs have the lawful choice of opting out of insurance and paying the individual mandate fine instead. For any RFRA nerds out there, the Court applied the "Lemon" test and determined that the mandates in question serve a secular legislative purpose, have a primary effect that does not inhibit religion, and do not excessively entangle government with religion.

Along the same lines, the Liberty plaintiffs amended their complaint in 2012 to include a challenge to the HHS mandate to provide comprehensive coverage for contraception, pointing out a religious objection to some of the treatments mandated for coverage.  The Fourth Circuit declined to rule on this claim because the Liberty plaintiffs had not pled this issue at a lower (district) court first. 

While on the surface this most recent ruling seems like a loss to ObamaCare's legal opposition, it may not be all bad news.  When it comes to ripeness, standing, and injury, this ruling includes some encouragement for ObamaCare's courtroom foes.  Essentially, the ruling makes it clear that plaintiffs in other cases (Halbig v. Sebelius and Pruitt v. Sebelius) should be able to get a judgment on the merits of their case.  It's good to keep in mind that the overarching legal strategy in challenging ObamaCare's constitutionality does not require a win on every level in every case.  


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