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U.S. Judge to Rule on Religious Group's Challenge to Health-Care Reform

Lawyers for a self-described Christian law center urged a federal judge to block the health- care overhaul President Barack Obama signed in March, arguing the law is an unconstitutional tax on individuals.

The Thomas More Law Center, the plaintiff in the case along with four uninsured individuals, argued before U.S. District Judge George Steeh in Detroit that the health-care statute creates a tax in the form of compulsory insurance that Congress lacks the power to enact. The center also claims the law would violate religious freedoms by using its members’ tax dollars to pay for abortions.

“To quote Joe Biden, ‘this is a big deal,’” Robert Muise, an attorney for the group, said. It’s “the first time in the nation’s history that Congress has assumed the power to tax” individuals under the Commerce Clause.

Lawsuits have been filed by 21 states, including Michigan, seeking to overturn the health-care statute, claiming its requirement that Americans buy health insurance exceeds the authority given Congress by the Constitution. The U.S. contends Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce gives it the power to impose mandatory insurance premiums because $43 billion in unpaid medical bills are absorbed each year into a national market.

‘Policy Dispute’

The government argued that the center, dedicated to the “defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians,” according to its website, has no standing to sue because no one has suffered an injury. Likewise, the government said the court has no justification for hearing the case as the insurance requirement won’t take effect until 2014.

“This is a policy dispute,” Ian Gershengorn, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department told the judge. “Plaintiffs don’t have insurance and don’t want to pay for it.”

Congress has the authority to regulate economic activity, including health care, Gershengorn said. Congress is trying to fix a market that absorbs $43 billion annually in unpaid medical bills, he said.

Steeh didn’t say when he would make a decision.

A federal judge in Richmond, Virginia, said he would make a decision by the end of the month on whether to throw out Virginia’s lawsuit challenging the health-care law. Another suit, brought in Florida on behalf of 20 states, won’t have its first oral arguments until September. Michigan is part of the Florida lawsuit.

The case is Thomas More Law Center v. President of the United States, 10cv11156, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit).

To contact the reporter on this story: William McQuillen in Washington at bmcquillen@bloomberg.net; Steve Raphael in Detroit at sraphael5@bloomberg.net.

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