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Today the Supreme Court rejected an appeal of pharmacists who claimed dispensing emergency contraceptives, including Plan B, under Washington state’s regulations requiring pharmacies to provide lawfully prescribed drugs, would violate their religious beliefs. 

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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, concluding that the Free Exercise Clause does not require exemptions for pharmacies with religious exemptions, because the law is not targeted at religion and advances the state’s interest in promoting patient safety.

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Pharmacies Should Fill Prescriptions Regardless Of Owners’ Religious Views, Church-State Watchdog Asserts

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acted correctly today by upholding Washington state regulations that require pharmacies to fill prescriptions that their owners may find objectionable, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the most recent version of the case, arguing that the regulations do not violate the religious freedom rights of pharmacy owners.

“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.”

Washington pharmacy commissioners passed regulations in 2007 as a response to a spate of incidents involving pharmacists who refused to dispense birth control, emergency contraception and other medications. The same rules permit individual pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription as long as a colleague will do so instead.

Pharmacies, however, may not refuse to dispense the drugs entirely. The Stormans family, who owns Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy in Olympia, claimed that provision violated its religious freedom rights and filed suit the same year. The family prevailed before a federal trial court in 2012, but the state appealed, arguing that it had a rational basis for requiring pharmacies to stock emergency contraception and other birth control pills.

The appeals court held that the regulations are neutral and don’t single out religion. The court also said the rules have a secular rationale of ensuring that state residents are able to get the medication they need.

 “[T]he rules were rationally related to Washington’s legitimate interest in ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications,” explained the court.

 The case is Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman. The Stormans family is being represented by the Becket Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom, two Religious Right legal groups.

 Americans United’s brief was prepared by Luchenitser and former AU attorney fellow Ben Hazelwood.