WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Thursday upheld a key part of President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law that requires Americans to obtain coverage, rejecting a challenge by a conservative interest group.
The Thomas More Law Center filed a lawsuit in Michigan the day Obama signed it into law. It argued that the provision requiring Americans buy coverage by 2014 under threat of penalty was beyond Congress' authority and an unconstitutional tax.
U.S. District Judge George Steeh ruled that Congress had the authority to enact the law under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and therefore could also impose a penalty for those who failed to obtain health insurance.
Steeh said Congress adopted the minimum coverage provision to address the growing costs of healthcare coverage and provide an avenue for more Americans to be covered.
"The minimum coverage provision, which addresses economic decisions regarding health care services that everyone eventually, and inevitably, will need, is a reasonable means of effectuating Congress's goal," he wrote in a 20-page decision.
Steeh dismissed two of six claims the Thomas More Law Center brought against the healthcare law and refused to issue an injunction it sought. The other four claims are still pending. The group also said the law violated its constitutional rights because federal tax dollars would be used to fund abortions.
The Justice Department hailed the decision and said it would continue to defend the law, which is facing numerous legal challenges.
"This ruling marks the first time a court has considered the merits of any challenge to this law and we welcome the court's decision upholding the healthcare reform statute as constitutional," said Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
A lawyer for the Thomas More Law Center vowed to appeal the ruling. "I think we have a very strong argument on appeal and quite frankly I like our chances," said Robert Muise, senior trial counsel.
The challenge is one of many against the healthcare law. Twenty states joined forces to sue in Florida to block the overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system, arguing it violated their rights and would force huge new spending by them.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Peter Cooney)