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Largo business challenging U.S. health care law gets religious reprieve

TAMPA — A Largo high-tech engineering firm doesn't have to offer emergency contraception under its medical plan while its case challenging part of the federal health care law is pending in court, a judge said this week.

Beckwith Electric Co. is owned by Thomas Beckwith, a devout Southern Baptist who believes emergency contraceptives are immoral and amount to "killing innocent human life." The 168-employee firm argues in federal court filings that emergency contraceptives, such as the so-called morning-after pill, violates the owner's religious beliefs.

Because its insurance plan was up for renewal this month, Beckwith could have been required to start covering the contraceptives while the case was under review. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich granted Beckwith a reprieve, saying the company may be due religious protections under federal law.

"Put simply, an individual's right to freely exercise religion includes the right to exercise religion in association with others under the corporate umbrella," Kovachevich wrote in a 37-page order.

The federal government can appeal the order. Otherwise, the case will proceed toward trial.

Thomas Beckwith, 67, on Wednesday said the judge's decision did not surprise him.

"I was counting on God to take care of me, and he did," said Beckwith.

Churches have received exemptions from the mandate. Under a compromise pushed by the Obama administration, nonprofit institutions, such as faith-based schools and charities, don't have to arrange or pay for contraceptive coverage, though their employees can work directly with the insurers to get it.

But for-profit companies are a different matter. Beckwith Electric is one of about three dozen companies that have sued the federal government over the mandate, said Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center. No federal appeals court has ruled on any of those cases.

About 20 of those companies, including Beckwith, have received temporary relief. Beckwith is thought to be the first Florida company to get such an order, said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Borchelt said the order allows employers to impose their religious beliefs on their workers, who also pay into their health insurance plans. She said an employer might begin denying other benefits under the guise of religion.

"We're worried this could open the door to allow religious discrimination against employees," she said.

Beckwith said that his employees receive comprehensive medical coverage, including non-emergency birth control. He said his employees can purchase emergency contraceptives, but he doesn't want any part of it.

"I happen to be a Christian," he said, "and we didn't want to have anything to do with killing."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

Largo business challenging U.S. health care law gets religious reprieve 06/26/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 9:40pm]
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