Court Reverses Decision in Washington Emergency Contraception Case

For the second time, The U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has rejected a challenge to a Washington state law requiring pharmacies to stock and provide all prescription medicines, including emergency contraception such as the Plan B pill. A trial judge had ruled that the law was an unconstitutional violation of the plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion. The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision, concluding that the Free Exercise Clause does not require exemptions for pharmacists' religious beliefs, because the law is not targeted at religion and advances the state’s interest in promoting patient safety.

From the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Stormans v. Wiesman:

"In order to promote patient safety in the state of Washington, the Washington Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission (“Commission”) promulgated rules requiring the timely delivery of all prescription medications by licensed pharmacies. The rules permit pharmacies to deny delivery for certain business reasons, such as fraudulent prescriptions or a customer’s inability to pay. The rules also permit a religiously objecting individual pharmacist to deny delivery, so long as another pharmacist working for the pharmacy provides timely delivery. But, unless an enumerated exemption applies, the rules require a pharmacy to deliver all prescription medications, even if the owner of the pharmacy has a religious objection.

Plaintiffs are the owner of a pharmacy and two individual pharmacists who have religious objections to delivering emergency contraceptives such as Plan B and ella. They challenge the rules on free exercise and other constitutional grounds. After a bench trial, the district court held that the rules violate the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses, and the court permanently enjoined enforcement of the rules. Because we conclude that the rules are neutral and generally applicable and that the rules rationally further the State’s interest in patient safety, we reverse."

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“The state of Washington has a clear interest in making sure women can get emergency contraception in a timely and safe manner,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s Associate Legal Director. “A pharmacy owner’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t be permitted to undermine that access.”

Americans United filed two briefs during the case supporting women’s access to emergency contraception. We're pleased to see that the court stood up up for women and their right to healthcare.