Pharmacists in Washington state must stock emergency contraceptive – even if they believe it goes against their religious beliefs.
A federal appeals court says the pharmacy rule does not infringe on religious freedom.
The pharmacists may ask someone else to dispense the contraceptive, and if no one else is available to do that, then they can refer the customer to another store. That’s not a problem in a city like Seattle, but could be tough for people in rural areas with just one pharmacy in the area.
Thursday’s ruling stems from a longstanding dispute between an Olympia pharmacy and the state pharmacy board.
In 2007 the Washington Pharmacy Board adopted a rule requiring pharmacists to fill prescriptions in a timely manner. The board had received reports from women who said they were denied access to emergency contraception known as Plan B.
Two local pharmacists and the owner of Ralph’s Thriftway Pharmacy sued, saying the rule violated their religious beliefs. A federal district court judge agreed.
But in 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and sent the case back to lower court. In 2012, the judge again ruled the state’s policies discriminate based on religious beliefs. That decision wasn’t the end of it. Last year, the federal appeals court was asked to weigh in. Again, the appellate court sided with the state.
“We’re disappointed with the ruling,” says Kristen Waggoner senior legal counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, the group representing the pharmacy owner and two pharmacists. Waggoner says the ruling has broader implications; it would affect the state’s health care system.
“One third of the state’s hospital beds are affiliated with religious entities and in this case, the Catholic hospitals have said they will not sell these drugs in their outpatient pharmacies,” Waggoner says.
“We have to take a look at if the state truly intends to enforce these regulations in an evenhanded manner, it will have significant implications to healthcare throughout the state.”
Those three pharmacists will not have to comply with the federal appeals court decision, because that ruling doesn’t end the matter. Waggoner says she and her clients are considering their options for appeal.