Supreme Court allows new challenge to Obama health care law

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

The Supreme Court has opened the door to a new challenge to President Barack Obama's sweeping health care reform law, just five months after upholding the law's individual mandate in a dramatic 5-4 decision.

The court decided on Monday that Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Virginia, must get a second hearing from a lower court of its challenge to the health care law's mandate that all large employers provide insurance to employees or pay a fine.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case last year, saying the university couldn't challenge the employer mandate before it went into effect. The university argues that employers cannot be compelled to provide health insurance under the Commerce Clause, and that religiously affiliated institutions in particular should not be made to. The university says that some of its funds could end up indirectly financing abortions under the employer mandate, which would violate its religious principles. (A district judge who heard the case in 2010 seemed skeptical of this argument, however, writing that Liberty had failed to show "how any payments required under the Act, whether fines, fees, taxes, or the cost of the policy, would be used to fund abortion.") The Supreme Court decided last June that individuals could be required to buy insurance under the law or pay a penalty, but did not specifically address the employer question.

The circuit court could decide the case as early as this spring, potentially setting the stage for another Supreme Court decision on the law.

The suit is not the first to challenge the health care law on the grounds that it violates employers' religious freedom. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed opposing the birth control mandate part of the law, arguing that employers should not have to provide plans that cover contraception if it violates their religious beliefs. Many of the suits are from religiously affiliated universities, but a few private businesses, including the crafts chain store Hobby Lobby, have also joined in. (Liberty has filed a separate suit addressing the contraception mandate.)

Adults who do not have health insurance and large employers who do not provide it will gradually begin paying fines starting in 2014.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Liberty University suit directly challenged the birth control mandate in addition to the employer mandate.