Attention, Washington, D.C.
Pay attention to Washington state.
A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Washington state cannot require pharmacists to dispense emergency contraceptives if to do so violates their religious beliefs.
U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton declared the state regulation unconstitutional because it trampled on pharmacists’ right to “conscientious objection.”
The ruling only applies to Washington state but is sure to reverberate nationally, as it comes in the midst of a roiling political debate about a new federal regulation mandating that all health insurance plans – even those sponsored by religious employers – provide free birth control.
Several religiously affiliated universities have sued to block that insurance regulation. Their arguments are similar to those that prevailed in the pharmacy case – namely, that the government has no right to compel individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat who had pushed for the pharmacy mandate in an effort to ensure women’s access to contraception, had no immediate comment. A spokesman for the state pharmacy board said officials there were still studying the ruling.
The lawsuit was brought by a drugstore owner and two of his pharmacists, all of whom shared the religious conviction that emergency contraceptives are tantamount to abortion, because they can block a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. They refused to stock or dispense the medication, often referred to by the brand name Plan B, and sued to block the regulation.
“I’m just thrilled that the court ruled to protect our constitutional right of conscience,” one of the pharmacists, Margo Thelen, said in a statement issued through her attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Becket Fund represents a family-owned pharmacy, Ralph’s Thriftway, and two pharmacists who could be forced out of the pharmacy profession solely because of their religious beliefs. These pharmacists cannot in good conscience dispense Plan B emergency contraception because they believe that life begins at the moment of fertilization, and that Plan B can destroy a fertilized egg.
The controversy began in 2006 when the State Board of Pharmacy unanimously supported a rule protecting conscience for pharmacy workers. The Board voted in favor of a regulation allowing pharmacists with religious objections to refrain from dispensing Plan B and to refer patients to nearby suppliers. Governor Christine Gregoire soon learned about the protection, publicly threatened to fire the Board’s members, and even called them late at night to lobby them. She replaced several Board members, publicly threatened to remove others, and personally joined in a boycott of the family-owned pharmacy. Matters escalated when the State’s Human Rights Commission insinuated that Board members could be held personally liable under gender discrimination laws if they supported the regulation.
Buckling under these pressures, the Board decided to reconsider the issue and instead adopted a regulation requiring pharmacies to stock and dispense the medication even when doing so violates their conscience. The Board adopted this regulation even though it admitted it found no evidence that anyone in the state had ever been unable to obtain Plan B (or any other time-sensitive medication) due to religious objections.
The Becket Fund’s clients then filed suit to prevent the new regulation from forcing them out of their profession. They argued that forcing pharmacists to dispense Plan B in violation of their religious beliefs violated their Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
On February 22, 2012, Judge Leighton, struck down the law requiring pharmacies to dispense the drug.
The opinion, findings, and permanent injunction documents can be found here.