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Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

Day one

Supreme Court | Religious rally creates a circus outside while first arguments over the healthcare law go on inside the court

WASHINGTON-On Monday morning, George Washington University student Chris Crawford sat on the sidewalk outside the U.S. Supreme Court after waiting up all night for a chance to go inside to hear oral arguments over the national healthcare law passed in 2010.

"I came to witness history," he said, pulling out his rations for the day: a loaf of bread and some apples. He's not drinking much water because he doesn't want to have to leave his spot in line to go to a restroom. "This is one of the biggest cases of my lifetime."

The court has scheduled three days of arguments over the healthcare law, lasting about two hours per day. Crawford had a chance to go inside the court Monday, but because Monday's arguments were supposed to be on the boring side, he decided to wait through another (potentially freezing) night outside for a chance to sit in on Tuesday, when arguments will focus on the constitutionality of the mandate to buy health insurance.

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Monday was an arcane-but vital-discussion (download a PDF of the court's transcript) of whether anyone could sue over the law because no one has paid penalties for noncompliance yet. That concern springs from the Anti-Injunction Act, which prohibits lawsuits from hindering the collection of taxes until individuals have actually paid the taxes. So the question was whether the penalties assessed under the healthcare law count as taxes.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who argued on behalf of the administration, said the case presented "issues of great moment" that the court should consider now, not after the penalties take effect, and the justices seemed inclined to agree that the case should move forward. Some lawyers predicted before Monday's arguments that the justices might dodge a political bullet by deferring a decision on the law until after this year's presidential election.

The Obama administration has taken different positions on this specific issue. In lower courts, its lawyers argued essentially that the penalties under the healthcare law did count as taxes. That would prohibit lawsuits until 2015, when people would begin paying penalties under the law. But the administration dropped that argument as the cases progressed, deciding that it wanted the courts to go ahead and decide the constitutionality of the law. Since none of the parties in the case wanted the case delayed until 2015, the court called in an outside lawyer to argue that the parties didn't have standing to sue.

Outside the Supreme Court building, a noisy circus of protestors, complete with trombones, trumpets, and cowbells, crammed into a small rectangle of sidewalks, where some unfortunate yellow pansies were trampled. The supporters of the law were well-organized and several hundred strong, some wearing Obama campaign buttons. Several news outlets reported that the White House had met with proponents of the law-including religious leaders-in early March to coordinate support during the Supreme Court arguments.

Critics of the law were sparse outside the court, though Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum came to the court steps and eviscerated the law right in the middle of the chanting, pro-healthcare law crowd. About half-a-dozen pro-life supporters stood in a line along the front steps of the court, with red tape over their mouths that said "LIFE." The group, Bound4Life, prays outside the Supreme Court every day.

"We're praying for the ending of abortion," said Matt Lockett, the group's executive director, who added that the healthcare law would expand the number of abortions.

A group of religious leaders from mostly mainline denominations-United Methodist, United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA)-rallied on the court steps in support of the healthcare bill. Some Catholics were at the rally, too. "Our sisters know what happens on the ground for those who don't have healthcare," said Sister Regina McKillop, with Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic women's relief organization. "I think we have a lot more credibility than the bishops because we've been on the ground."

"Who are you?" a woman asked one of the religious protestors.

"We support the bill. Isn't that great?" responded a protestor holding a "People of faith for healthcare" sign.

"No!" the woman returned. "We can't afford it!"

"Can I talk to you later?" the protestor said. "We're people of faith and this is a prayer vigil."

"I'm a person of faith," the woman huffed. "And we can't afford this."

"Can you respect the people who are praying?" the protestor replied, and then turned her back on the woman. The faith rally protestors began singing "This Little Light of Mine," and the woman stormed away. "I'm so mad," she said.

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