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Sunday, Sep 14, 2014
Crime & Courts

Largo firm wins exemption from contraception mandate

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A Largo electric company won't have to cover certain contraceptives under its employee health plan after a federal judge Monday issued a preliminary injunction freeing the company from a controversial provision under the Affordable Care Act.

"I fought the law and the Lord won!" exclaimed a jubilant Thomas Beckwith, owner of Beckwith Electric Co., who argued the "Obamacare" contraceptive mandate violated his religious beliefs.

Beckwith vowed not to pay for an insurance provision covering three so-called morning after drugs and copper intrauterine devices, which prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. A devout Southern Baptist, Beckwith considers that the same as murder.

The federal government argued Beckwith had no legal standing to sue because the contraceptive mandate applied to his company and not to him personally and that the corporation has no right to freedom of religion under the First Amendment or the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The government asserted it had an interest in protecting women's access to healthcare and that allowing a for-profit corporation to claim religious freedom could open the door to all kinds of discrimination.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich issued a 37-page decision late Tuesday afternoon declaring corporations do have First Amendment freedom of religion protections.

"Any action that debases, or cheapens, the intrinsic value of the tenet of religious tolerance that is entrenched in the Constitution cannot stand," Kovachevich wrote.

That opinion, should it be upheld, would enlarge the First Amendment freedom of speech protections the U.S. Supreme Court granted corporations under its 2010 Citizens United decision.

The judge also provided an alternative, writing that corporations, even if they don't have such rights, can assert the religious freedom rights of their owners.

Freedom of religion, the judge wrote, is a fundamental right, "a liberty of conscience."

"It, therefore, cannot be reasonably disputed, if at all, that the purpose of the right to exercise religion was to secure to all individuals the liberty of conscience without government interference," Kovachevich wrote. "What happens, then, when the individual chooses to participate in free enterprise? Does this liberty of conscience travel with an individual in his or her commercial endeavors as a shareholder of a corporation? This court believes it does."

The judge noted that the Supreme Court has granted corporations "a wide array of what may often be considered individual rights and protections" and has also has held that corporations are not entitled to some rights granted to individuals, including privacy and the right against self-incrimination.

The case is the first of its kind in Florida - or any of the three states covered by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - involving a profit-making entity, according to the ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling, who said she expects the government will appeal.

The ACLU filed a brief supporting the government, while Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office and a consortium of religious groups filed briefs in support of Beckwith.

"Obviously, we're disappointed with the ruling," Melling said. "We're disappointed that this ruling permits this employer to impose its views on its diverse work force."

The ACLU maintained in this case that companies have historically used religious arguments like the one asserted by Beckwith to justify racial, sex and other forms of discrimination.

Had Beckwith lost, he would have faced what he says would be crippling fines - about $6 million a year - that could threaten the existence of his company, which was founded by his father in 1967.

Beckwith said he worried what would happen if he lost in court, but he expected to win. "I kind of had a lot of faith," he said. "There's a whole path of miracles that got me here."

Beckwith on Tuesday stressed that he does not oppose all forms of birth control. In fact, he objected to the use of the word "contraception" in describing what's at stake. Although Kovachevich uses the word throughout her opinion, and Beckwith's lawsuit refers to the drugs in question as "emergency contraception," Beckwith says the term is not accurate.

The drugs and devices he objects to, he said, do not prevent conception. Rather, they deprive a fertilized egg of necessary nutrients and oxygen by preventing it from implanting, or as he put it, "the ones that kill life after the sperm meets the egg."

His employee insurance policy, he says, covers "anything that prevents conception. I cover IUDs that prevent conception. I cover birth control pills, maternity benefits. This is a powerful insurance policy. Where I draw the line is three (drugs); they call them emergency contraception, but it's deceitful because they're not contraception... They kill an innocent human life."

In her ruling, Kovachevich noted that Beckwith traces his roots to ancestors who fled England in 1626 to escape religious persecution.

The judge noted that while Beckwith Electric Co. is a secular, for-profit corporation, it "is operated and consistent with Beckwith's personal religious beliefs."

The company, which had 168 employees when the lawsuit was first filed in March, now employes about 163 people, Beckwith said. It manufactures safety and other equipment for electric power plants.

Beckwith took control of the company in 2003, when his father handed over the reins following a downturn, he says. Beckwith said the company turned around as he infused it with his religious principles, which he credits for its success.

Kovachevich wrote that Beckwith "personally arranges for corporate chaplains to visit Beckwith Electric on a weekly basis to assist employees with "difficult issues of bereavement, marriage, children, finances, addictions, eldercare, and othertypes of crises." And she noted that the company donates to religious and secular charities, including "including New Life Solutions' Family Ministries, which is a 'Christ-centered' ministry offering hope, help, and healing for women, teens and families by promoting healthy lifestyle choices and relationships."

Speaking by phone from an electric car conference in Orlando, Beckwith said he planned to celebrate his court victory with his friends there. "I might have a beer or two," he said. "I might laugh a lot."

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO,

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