• D.C. District Court Upholds Constitutionality of Health Reform’s Individual Mandate and Finds it Does Not Violate the Religious Freedom Act
  • March 10, 2011 | Author: Daniel J. Hettich
  • Law Firm: King & Spalding LLP - Washington Office
  • In a memorandum decision dated February 22, 2011, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the government’s request to dismiss a case brought by several individuals challenging PPACA's mandate that individuals buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. Mead v. Holder, Civil Action No. 10-950 (D.D.C. 2011).

    After finding in favor of all but one of the plaintiffs on the issue of standing and ripeness, Judge Kessler turned to the substance of the case.  The judge held that the individual mandate was constitutional under both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, but rejected the government’s argument that the individual mandate was also authorized under Congress’ power to tax.  On this last issue, the judge reasoned that the fee imposed upon individuals who fail to obtain minimum health insurance coverage by 2014 was categorized as a “penalty,” not a tax, and was meant as an inducement to obtain health insurance, not to raise revenue.

    In addition to the constitutional challenges, two of the plaintiffs argued that the mandate to buy health insurance constitutes a “substantial” burden on their exercise of religion in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et. seq. (RFRA).  In particular, the plaintiffs argued that being forced to purchase insurance “requires them to perform an act that implies that they doubt God’s ability to provide for their health.”  The court, however, ruled that the plaintiffs’ assertion, even if true, did not constitute a "substantial" burden under the RFRA, especially since plaintiffs have the option of paying a penalty instead of retaining health insurance.  But, even if the mandate does constitute a substantial burden, the court ruled that the exception under the RFRA is met because the mandate is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest,” namely reducing spiraling health care costs and premiums, and was the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling . . . interest.”

    Judge Kessler’s ruling marks the fifth time a federal court has weighed in on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law with a tally of three courts supporting the law (U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District of Michigan, Western District of Virginia, and now the District of Columbia), and two against the law (U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Northern District of Florida).