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Faith

Religion, insurance mandate conflict for Largo businessman


Published:   |   Updated: June 24, 2013 at 02:54 PM

TAMPA - Thomas Beckwith credits his Southern Baptist faith, what he calls the center of his moral compass, with the success of his electrical company in Largo.

" God's taken me this far and he'll take me the rest of the way,'' Beckwith says. "He's got a very personal interest in the success of this electric company."

For Beckwith, life begins at conception.

And as he sees it, a federal mandate that his businesses provide its 163 employees with health insurance that covers certain forms of birth control is tantamount to requiring that he participate in murder.

Now he and his company, Beckwith Electric Co., are locked in battle with the federal government over the controversial contraception provision in the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Beckwith lawsuit is the only one involving a for-profit business in Florida, although there are about 30 similar cases across the United States.

There have been two cases in Florida involving nonprofit institutions. Lawsuits filed last year by Ave Maria University and the Archdiocese of Miami were both later dismissed and have not been appealed.

So far, the courts have been split over whether to grant injunctions sought by the for-profit companies. ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling said the issue is likely to be addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The cases could ultimately determine whether secular businesses have the same First Amendment religious freedoms as individuals. If so, that would be an extension of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations freedom of speech.

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For Beckwith, the stakes are life and death, good vs. evil.

For the federal government, the goal is to provide for better health care for women and curtail employment discrimination.

The Justice Department says Beckwith Electric Co. has no religious rights and is entirely separate from Beckwith the individual as far as the law is concerned.

"The owner has no right to control the choices of his company's employees, who may not share his religious beliefs, when making use of their benefits," the Justice Department said in a court filing.

"Under our present law, women have a right to chose," Beckwith conceded. "In general, I just don't want to pay for it or provide it. I shouldn't be forced to pay for it or provide it. We're talking about killing."

If the company loses in court, it faces what Beckwith described as crippling fines of millions of dollars a year. Even in that case, Beckwith said, he will not comply with the mandate.

Although he said in a court affidavit that employees are worried they might lose their health insurance, Beckwith said there's no way his company will drop what he says are generous employee benefits.

Does that mean a loss would be the end of Beckwith Electric?

Beckwith said he doesn't want to face that choice.

When first asked if his company would be finished, he said, "Yes." But then he equivocates.

"I'm not going to actually state that," he said. "But $6 million a year. That's what the government wants to do to me, and I don't think God's going to let that happen.''

The next day, Beckwith calls a reporter back. He says he has been thinking more about the question.

"I really hadn't dealt with it because I don't want to lose," he said. "The honest answer is I don't know because I've got 163 people who them and their families depend on me for doing the right thing. On the other hand, I don't want to betray my relationship with God."

If he loses, he said, "I'll have to go before the Lord and have a real heart to heart."

Last week, attorneys were in federal court over an emergency motion by Beckwith seeking a court injunction freeing the company from the mandate.

Representing Beckwith, attorney Erin Mersino, who works for a Michigan-based Christian rights law firm, said an injunction "would alleviate him from making that decision and cooperating with evil."

Justice Department attorney Michael Pollack argued that the regulations have no impact on Beckwith, who is "free to pray every day" because his religious freedom is not being compromised. Beckwith Electric "has no standing to assert its owner's religious beliefs," Pollack said. "It cannot exercise religion."

Accepting Beckwith's premise, Pollack argued, could allow the company to avoid paying minimum wage because employees could use their money to pay for contraception. "Where does it end?"

Mersino said Beckwith does have a personal stake because he is the one who would have to implement the insurance requirement.

"The Southern Baptist faith doesn't give a pass to Mr. Beckwith because he's operating his business in the corporate form," she said. "It's not just the freedom to worship; it's the freedom to be a religious person and carry out your religious beliefs in all you do.

"Please protect religious freedom in this instance," she implored U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovacevich, "so they don't have to sin."

Kovacevich said she will issue her ruling by the end of the month. Appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, Kovacevich issued a ruling last year allowing a rape victim to sue the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office after a nurse at the county jail refused to allow her to take a morning-after pill because of the nurse's religious beliefs. That lawsuit is pending.

The legal fight centers on what lawyers call abortifacients ­- drugs and devices that cause abortions. In particular, Beckwith doesn't want to fund insurance to provide intrauterine devices as well as the emergency contraception drugs Ella, Next Choice and Plan B - One Step, often referred to as morning-after pills.

The contraceptive requirement was put in place June 1, and Mersino said in court that Beckwith is "in violation of his faith every day." She later submitted a clarification to the court noting that the current Beckwith Electric employee health insurance policy excludes the drugs in question and copper IUDs.

"Based on that fact, it may be found that the plaintiff is not in compliance with the mandate and therefore subject to penalties," she wrote.

Mersino said in court that Beckwith's employees are free to use their health spending accounts and their earnings to pay for the drugs. Asked later about this point, Beckwith said, "No comment."

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Supporters of the Obamacare requirement, including the ACLU, say providing easy access to birth control is essential for achieving equality for women.

"An important component of gender equality is the ability of women to have full control of their reproductive lives, and to be able to decide whether and when to have children," the ACLU wrote in a court pleading. The civil liberties organization says the religious freedom claims asserted by Beckwith have been echoed throughout history by other businesses seeking to discriminate against employees.

"For example, a secular school instituted a 'Protestant-only' hiring policy based on the school's founder's religious preferences," the ACLU wrote. "Employers claimed their right to religious freedom entitled them to pay men - who they considered to be the head of household based on their religious beliefs - more than women; businesses claimed that their right to religious liberty entitled them to discriminate against African-American customers in public accommodations; and universities claimed a religious liberty right to discriminate against African-American students."

Melling said businesses' religious objections to providing contraception coverage "are one of sort of a bundle" of cases that also includes businesses that don't want to provide services for lesbian and gay couples.

Beckwith said the idea that he would discriminate against anyone is "absolutely offensive to me."

"I don't force my religious beliefs on anybody, but they know what I believe," he said.

"My beliefs are not preferences," he said. "If I knew you were going to kill somebody and I gave you a gun, I'd be just as guilty."

He said he has employees "from all nations and creeds and colors and religions." He said he would not discriminate against gay people.

Moreover, the insurance his company provides is "very powerful health insurance for women," he said. Women who work for him have come to him weeping in gratitude for the coverage he provides, he said.

While the ACLU has filed a brief in support of the federal government, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office and a consortium of Christian groups are backing Beckwith.

Bondi famously led the unsuccessful effort by states attorneys general to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the Affordable Care Act on constitutional grounds.

The brief filed by Bondi's office in the Beckwith case argues that the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantee and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to "businesses that operate according to religious principles, even if they are not operated by a religious organization."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 extended First Amendment free-speech rights to corporations, Pollack, the Justice Department attorney, said no court has found corporations also have the right to practice religion. Doing so, he said, would open the door to all kinds of corporate employee discrimination.

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If Beckwith Electric were granted an exemption from the contraception requirement, women who work at the company "would be at a competitive disadvantage in the workforce due to their inability to decide for themselves if and when to bear children," the Justice Department said in court filings.

The country is made up of people from all kinds of religious backgrounds, the Justice Department wrote, "and many people object to countless medical services." If any business were able to seek an exemption from the mandate, "it is difficult to see how (the government) could administer the regulations in a manner that would achieve Congress's goals of improving the health of women and children and equalizing the coverage of preventive services for women."

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Beckwith Electric was founded in 1967 by Beckwith's father. The company makes safety and technical equipment for power plants.

Beckwith, 67, said when he took the helm in 2003 in the midst of a downturn, he began to infuse the company with his religious principles and turned things around.

Those beliefs crystallized for Beckwith in 1979, he said. Until then, although he was raised Methodist, religion wasn't particularly important to him.

He said he was "a product of the seventies; 'nuff said." Beckwith said he would "plead the Fifth" as to what kinds of things he did before his religious awakening.

One night he was riding home on his motorcycle on Ulmerton Road, he said, and he had an epiphany. He burst into tears and pulled his bike into a parking lot behind a metal building that turned out to be a church.

He put the kickstand down, went inside and encountered a youth pastor talking to children.

The pastor, he said, told an assistant to take care of the kids, and then told Beckwith, "Follow me." Although he doesn't remember the specifics, the pastor, he said, "told me all kinds of stuff that I needed to know."

That metal building church is no longer there, he said. These days, Beckwith attends First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks.

He said he and his wife are also missionaries; they went to Indonesia last year and Nicaragua the year before. This year, they're planning trips to Ecuador and Bolivia.

"I have an intense personal, bidirectional relationship with the architect, designer, creator of the universe and all life that's in it," he said.

The Beckwith Electric Co. website includes religious references in its "CEO message" from Beckwith:

"There are those in this world who believe that the only way to get ahead is to look out for #1 first," it says in part. "God's Word says - NOT SO! We are to humbly serve others first."

Beckwith said when people ask him why his company is successful, he tells them it comes from God. "I don't hog the glory," he said.

In 2010 and 2012, the company grew 62 percent, he said.

"God blessed us. My employees knew it."

When there was a temporary downturn late last year and earlier this year, he said he kept people on the payroll even though they didn't have work to do. Now things have stabilized again.

Last year, Beckwith said in court pleadings, his company gave $150,000 to charitable causes. The company has donated to "schools, missions, hospitals, hospices, a political party, churches and to religious causes," he said.

Beckwith said he has donated to the Republican Party and conservative causes such as right to life, but that he also supports Democratic causes such as immigration reform, about which he feels strongly.

"I have an interesting set of values," he said.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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