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Federal appeals court rejects Christian university's request to overturn ObamaCare

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FILE: An auxiliary sanctuary at the new Thomas Road Baptist Church on the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.AP

A federal appeals court in Virginia on Thursday rejected a Christian university's bid to overturn the Obama administration's health care law.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing Liberty University's lawsuit.

Liberty argued the employer health insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act violates the school's religious rights by requiring it to provide coverage for abortion inducing drugs. The appeals court found no merit in the claim.

"Plaintiffs present no plausible claim that the act substantially burdens their free exercise of religion, by forcing them to facilitate or support abortion or otherwise," Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote in the opinion. He wrote the law "allows an individual to obtain, and an employer to offer, a plan that covers no abortion services at all."

The opinion was joined by Judges Andre M. Davis and Diana Gribbon Motz. Davis and Wynn are Obama appointees, and Motz was appointed by Bill Clinton. The same panel in 2011 ruled Liberty's lawsuit was premature. The Supreme Court upheld the health care law in another case in June 2012, and in November the justices ordered the appeals court to reconsider Liberty's case in light of that ruling.

Liberty attorney Mat Staver said he plans to appeal.

"At least the court reached the merits and did not try to dodge the issues on procedural or standing grounds," he said in a telephone interview. "This clears the way to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be the final stop anyway."

A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a telephone message.

Liberty's lawsuit also challenged the provision requiring most individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. The individual mandate takes effect in 2014, while the employer requirement has been delayed until 2015.

In last year's decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate is a constitutional exercise of congressional taxing power. A majority of the justices said the mandate did not fall under the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. That case did not address the employer mandate.

The appeals court said unlike the individual mandate, the employer requirement is a valid exercise of Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause. Unlike individuals who may be doing nothing, the court said, businesses by their very nature are engaged in commerce.

"It has long been settled that Congress may impose conditions on terms of employment that substantially affect interstate commerce," the court said. "Requiring employers to offer their employees a certain level of compensation through health insurance coverage is akin to requiring employers to pay their workers a minimum wage."

Two individual plaintiffs also joined Liberty's case, arguing the law would create a financial hardship by forcing them to buy insurance they don't want or pay a penalty. The appeals court said those individuals might qualify for a hardship exemption.

In the appeal, Liberty also challenged new regulations requiring group health plans to cover all federal Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods. The appeals court declined to consider that because the regulations had not been approved when the lawsuit was filed and were not part of the original complaint.

Staver said Liberty may file a separate suit challenging the regulations.