July 12, 2013 — A federal appeals court on Thursday dismissed Liberty University's challenge to the federal contraceptive coverage rules, as well as the Affordable Care Act's (PL 111-148) requirements that most people obtain health insurance and that employers offer it to their workers, Politico reports (Haberkorn, Politico, 7/11).
When the suit was first filed in 2010, it challenged both the employer mandate and the requirement that individuals obtain health insurance or pay a penalty. The university also later claimed that the individual and employer mandates require it to comply with rules forcing it to offer contraceptive coverage for its workers, which it argues goes against its religious beliefs.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the original case when Liberty first presented it in 2011, saying that it could not rule on the matter because the Anti-Injunction Act prevents suits over a tax that has yet to be levied.
However, the Supreme Court last year ordered the appeals court to reconsider the case in light of the high court's ruling in a separate challenge to the ACA, which found that the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply to the individual mandate (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/17).
Judges: Employer, Individual Mandates Constitutional, Not Overly Burdensome
In a unanimous ruling, the three judges wrote that the employer mandate "is no monster" and "is simply another example of Congress' longstanding authority to regulate employee compensation offered and paid for by employers in interstate commerce." The provision does not, "contrary to Liberty's assumption, ... require employers to 'purchase an unwanted product,'" the judges added.
The judges also pointed out that the Supreme Court's determination that the individual mandate is not a penalty but a tax -- and therefore legal under the Commerce Clause -- "inevitably leads to the conclusion that the employer mandate exaction, too, is a constitutional tax."
In addition, the judges wrote that the employer mandate does not force the university to violate its religious beliefs when it comes to "facilitating, subsidizing, easing, funding or supporting ... abortions." They noted that Congress had the right to execute a "valid and neutral law of general applicability," even when the law "'has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice.'"
Further, the judges found that Liberty failed to demonstrate how the law substantially burdens the university, since the ACA "allows an individual to obtain, and an employer to offer, a plan that covers no abortion services at all" or a plan that covers abortion only in cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman's health (Bunis, CQ HealthBeat, 7/11).
Contraceptive Coverage Challenge Dismissed on Technicality
The court also rejected the university's specific challenge to the federal contraceptive coverage rules.
The judges dismissed that aspect of the case on a technicality, explaining that Liberty failed to include the issue in its original filings in lower courts. The judges said they cannot rule on the merits of that challenge until a lower court does so (Politico, 7/11).
Liberty Plans Appeal
Liberty University School of Law Dean Mathew Staver said the school would appeal the ruling, adding that the decision "now clears the way for us to go to the United States Supreme Court" (CQ HealthBeat, 7/11).
Staver also outlined his objections to the ruling. "It goes against the principle that the Supreme Court laid down that Congress cannot force individuals to buy an unwanted product," he said, adding, "We believe the same principle applied to employers. If we win on the employer mandate, then the mandate would be gone for religious and non-religious employers."
The Department of Justice did not immediately comment on the ruling (Stempel, Reuters, 7/11).