Washington state officials are permanently blocked from enforcing rules that tell pharmacies and pharmacists they have to stock emergency-contraception products regardless of any religious objections, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
“The Board of Pharmacy’s 2007 rules are not neutral, and they are not generally applicable,” U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton wrote in a case that pitted two veteran pharmacists and Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, Wash., against state health officials and the state pharmacy board.
Instead, the rules were designed “to force religious objectors to dispense Plan B,” said the judge, noting that other pharmacies that failed to dispense the same product for “secular reasons” were not subjected to the state investigations and public harassment that Ralph’s Thriftway has endured.
“The rules are unconstitutional as applied to the Plaintiffs. The Court will therefore permanently enjoin their enforcement against Plaintiffs,” wrote Judge Leighton, who serves in the Western District Court of Washington at Tacoma.
The ruling is a rebuke to the efforts of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who appointed all the defendants, and her pro-choice allies, who worked to ensure that the Washington Board of Pharmacy would have new members who would write and pass a rule omitting “conscience” as a reason for not dispensing Plan B or “Ella” morning-after pills.
Emergency-contraception products are used by women after sex to prevent pregnancy; the products must be used within a few days to be effective. Many religious people object to Plan B and Ella as abortifacients because they can destroy a fertilized embryo.
The plaintiffs said they referred customers to other pharmacies for the products they could not stock or dispense for conscience reasons.
Mrs. Gregoire said Wednesday she and state officials will discuss “the best path forward” to ensure access to these “time-sensitive medications.”
“There are strong arguments to make on appeal from this lower court decision,” she added.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the plaintiffs with Seattle law firm Ellis, Li and McKinstry, said the ruling was a resounding victory for religious liberty.
“Today’s decision sends a very clear message: No individual can be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director at the Becket Fund.
“The tide has turned,” said Dr. David Stevens, chief executive of Christian Medical & Dental Associations, which has been following the Stormans v. Selecky case.
“This decision,” he added, “may be the high-water mark in the persistent and pernicious attacks in health care on our most important constitutional right, the ability to practice health care according to our deeply held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.”
Veteran pharmacist Margo Thelen lost her job at another pharmacy and Rhonda Mesler had her job, at a third pharmacy, threatened over conscience objections. Neither woman worked at Ralph’s Thriftway, but joined the case as co-plaintiffs.