Pharmacists are obliged to dispense the Plan B pill, even if they are personally opposed to the "morning after" contraceptive on religious grounds, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
In a case that could affect policy across the western U.S., a supermarket pharmacy owner in Olympia, Wash., failed in a bid to block 2007 regulations that required all Washington pharmacies to stock and dispense the pills.
Family-owned Ralph's Thriftway and two pharmacists employed elsewhere sued Washington state officials over the requirement. The plaintiffs asserted that their Christian beliefs prevented them from dispensing the pills, which can prevent implantation of a recently fertilized egg. They said that the new regulations would force them to choose between keeping their jobs and heeding their religious objections to a medication they regard as a form of abortion.
Ralph's owners, Stormans Inc., and pharmacists Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen sought protection under the 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion and won a temporary injunction from the U.S. District Court in Seattle pending trial on the constitutionality of the regulations. That order prevented state officials from penalizing pharmacists who refused to dispense Plan B as long as they referred consumers to a nearby pharmacy where it was available.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, saying the district court was wrong in issuing it based on an erroneous finding that the rules violated the free exercise of religion clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Other constitutional challenges are pending with the district court, which had been waiting for the 9th Circuit ruling on the injunction, said Chad Allred, a Seattle lawyer whose firm represents Stormans and the pharmacists. In anticipation of the injunction being vacated, Stormans and the two pharmacists secured an agreement with the state that it would not pursue sanctions against them until the other issues were decided at trial, Allred said.
"We're still optimistic that we're doing the right thing and that we will prevail in the end," said Kevin Stormans, who with his father and two siblings owns the supermarket at the center of the legal challenge.
The 9th Circuit ruling, however, means that the requirement that pharmacies stock and dispense Plan B takes immediate effect, said Joyce Roper, an assistant attorney general for Washington state.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization that filed the suit on behalf of Stormans, didn't return a call for comment.
Although the courts have yet to pronounce judgment on other aspects of the lawsuit, the unanimous ruling on the free-exercise clause could portend further judgments, as the case moves forward, that a patient's right to timely medication supersedes a pharmacist's personal convictions.
The three 9th Circuit judges found common ground despite differing outlooks: Two conservatives named to the court by President George W. Bush and a liberal named by President Clinton made up the panel.
The right to freely exercise one's religion "does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability," the 9th Circuit panel wrote.
"Any refusal to dispense -- regardless of whether it is motivated by religion, morals, conscience, ethics, discriminatory prejudices, or personal distaste for a patient -- violates the rules," the panel said.