TAMPA — A Largo electrical manufacturer welcomed a decision Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing companies to deny on religious grounds health-care coverage of certain birth-control measures under the Affordable Care Act.
In issuing the ruling, the high court cited protections afforded by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Tom Beckwith, a Southern Baptist who owns Beckwith Electric in Largo, had filed his own legal challenge to the coverage requirement and watched closely as a similar case made its way to the Supreme Court. Beckwith’s company employs nearly 150 workers and provides health coverage though self-insurance.
“I did expect it,” Beckwith said Monday morning after he was informed of the favorable decision. “I trust a lot in God. We’ve been having serious heart-to-heart talks lately.”
In June 2013, Beckwith won a federal court order granting him an exemption from the contraception mandate when a U.S. district judge agreed that his business was protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee.
The federal government, which argued that for-profit, secular corporations cannot avoid legal requirements because of religious beliefs, appealed Beckwith’s case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. In January, the appellate court put the case on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similarly styled case.
Beckwith credits his faith for his success, both personal and in business, and a core part of that faith is his opposition to abortion.
He has refused to comply with a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover the cost of pills and devices that terminate pregnancies, including morning-after pills and certain intrauterine devices.
“All this is over three stinking pills,” Beckwith said. “I know what they do. I’m not a doctor, but I know how they work. I consider it murder.”
Beckwith said his case still has to be heard in the appellate court, but he likes his chances now that the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue.
“Obviously, I’m going for it,” he said. “I’m a bulldog. I’m not going to let this go. I’m going to do whatever I have to do now.”
Beckwith, whose company makes components for power plants around the world and boasts annual revenue of more than $30 million, said he has no objections to providing insurance that pays for pills or devices that prevent conception, but he has refused to pay for anything that terminates a pregnancy, no matter how far along.
“If a woman wants to do it, she is free to do it,” he said. “Just don’t make me pay for it.”
He said he has gotten no push-back from his employees. He said his company has been self-insured since 2009, when he opted out of Humana coverage over the issue.
The health-care coverage he offers is excellent, he said, and includes pharmaceutical, dental, vision, long- and short-term disability coverage.
“I love my employees and I want to keep them,” he said. “Some have stayed here 15, 20, 25 years.”
In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority, had to weigh the religious rights of “closely-held companies” or businesses that are typically run by families, against the rights of women to use the birth control of their choice.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday.
“It’s unbelievable that in 2014, we’re still fighting about whether women should have access to birth control,” Richards said in a statement released Monday. “Today, the Supreme Court ruled against American women and families, giving bosses the right to discriminate against women and deny their employees access to birth-control coverage. This is a deeply disappointing and troubling ruling that will prevent some women, especially those working hourly-wage jobs and struggling to make ends meet, from getting birth control.
For the first time, the high court has ruled that profit-seeking businesses can hold religious views.
Under the Affordable Care Act, employers must cover contraception for women at no extra charge.
But dozens of companies, including the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of Pennsylvania, claimed religious objections to covering some contraceptives.
The cases brought Hobby Lobby and Conestoga were the ones reviewed by the high court.
The methods and devices at issue are birth-control measures that work after conception. They are the emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella, as well as intrauterine devices, which can cost up to $1,000.
The Obama administration says insurance coverage for birth control is important to women’s health and reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies as well as abortions.
Religious employers, including churches and hospitals run by religions, are exempt from this contraceptive mandate.
In the 49-page opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote:
“The employees of these religious non-profit corporations still have access to insurance coverage without cost sharing for all FDA-approved contraceptives; and according to (the federal Department of Health and Human Services) this system imposes no net economic burden on the insurance companies that are required to provide or secure the coverage.” The opinion said such alternatives also are available to private sector, for-profit companies.
Closely held companies with owners who have strong religious beliefs are not the same as large corporations, the opinion said.
The government, “goes so far as to raise the specter of ‘divisive, polarizing proxy battles over the religious identity of large, publicly traded corporations such as IBM or General Electric,” the opinion said. “These cases, however, do not involve publicly traded corporations, and it seems unlikely that the sort of corporate giants to which HHS refers will often assert (religious freedom) claims.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling overrides the rights of employees and covered dependents.
“It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs, access to contraceptive coverage that the (Affordable Care Act) would otherwise secure.
“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield ... ” Ginsburg wrote.
Stetson Law Professor Charlie Rose said the ruling was not surprising given the recent decisions handed down by the court in the area of individual constitutional rights, including the one last week that said law enforcement needed a warrant to seize information contained in cell phones.
“It’s an indication of the ... agreement between the core conservatives and individuals on the court to protect certain rights,” Rose said. “That’s a great thing in the criminal law arena, but when it comes to social programs there needs to be a little more constitutional analysis applied.
“If you look at this ruling,” he said, “you are seeing the court sliding back to some core constitutional principles. The problem is they are a couple hundred years old and it makes it more difficult to manage a 21st century society under those principles.”
He said the decision is narrowly focused, though it may be touted by conservatives and liberals as far reaching.
“Folks are acting like it’s a big deal, but it’s completely predictable,” Rose said. “It doesn’t mean the Affordable Care Act is doomed. All it means is that if you have a closely held right and a closely held corporation, the expression of your individual belief trumps those provisions of the health-care coverage.”