Updated 8:45 p.m.
A federal judge in Washington today sided with the Justice Department in dismissing a suit that challenged the Obama administration's health care reforms, adding to the divide in the federal judiciary over the constitutionality of the controversial legislation.
The plaintiffs in Washington federal district court sought a declaration from Senior U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that the individual insurance mandate in the health care law is unconstitutional on the ground it violates religious freedom.
Kessler called the individual mandate a “critical element in Congress’s comprehensive plan to reduce the spiraling health care costs that this country has experienced and is expected to experience in the future.” Click here for the 64-page ruling.
Kessler granted DOJ's motion dismiss the plaintiffs' amended complaint [.pdf], which was filed last July. A copy of the Justice Department's motion to dismiss, signed by Civil Division trial attorney Eric Womack, is here.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Edward White III of the American Center for Law and Justice, said the ruling disappointed the plaintiffs and that they are planning an appeal.
The plaintiffs include a 62-year-old self-employed resident of North Carolina, Margaret Peggy Lee Mead, who has not had health insurance for about 18 years. Mead and two other plaintiffs intend to refuse medical service for the remainder of their lives. Two plaintiffs in the suit said they want to pay for medical services with their own money.
Three of the plaintiffs, including Mead, believe “God will provide for their physical, spiritual and financial well-being,” Kessler wrote.
The health care law, Kessler said, will not impose a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religious beliefs. The judge said it’s unclear how the law “puts substantial pressure on plaintiffs to modify their behavior and to violate their beliefs, as it permits them to pay a shared responsibility payment in lieu of actually obtaining health insurance.”
Kessler said the individual mandate provision “serves a compelling public interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” The government, the judge said, “has a compelling interest in safeguarding the public health by regulating the health care and insurance markets.”
The litigation, Kessler noted, is one of many similar suits in federal district courts around the country.
“The controversy surrounding this legislation is significant, as is the public’s interest in the substantive reforms contained in the Act,” wrote Kessler, appointed to the federal trial bench under President Bill Clinton. “It is highly likely that a decision by the United States Supreme Court will be required to resolve the constitutional and statutory issues which have been raised.”