A federal judge has blocked a new Washington state requirement from forcing pharmacists to dispense "morning-after" birth control pills even if it is contrary to their moral or religious beliefs.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled Thursday that pharmacists can refuse to sell the morning-after pill, known also as Plan B, or other objectionable prescriptions if they refer the customer to another nearby source.
"[T]he regulations appear to target religious practice in a way forbidden by the Constitution" and "appear to intentionally place a significant burden on the free exercise of religion for those who believe life begins at conception," Leighton wrote in the court order.
The ruling was considered a victory for pharmacists who consider the emergency contraceptive tantamount to abortion because the drug can in some cases prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.
"Whether or not Plan B ... terminates a pregnancy, to those who believe that life begins at conception, the drug is designed to terminate a life," wrote Leighton.
Both pharmacists and pharmacy owners are protected under the injunction pending a lawsuit to overturn the new state rules, which require pharmacists to fill prescriptions for all drugs and pharmacies to stock drugs like Plan B despite religious objections.
Kevin Stormans, a Christian who owns pharmacies in the state, and two other Christian pharmacists contend in their suit filed in July that the law forces them into "choosing between their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs."
The group is represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund and ADF-allied attorneys from Seattle-based law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry.
Kristen Waggoner, lead counsel and attorney of Ellis, Li & McKinstry, said in a written statement Thursday, "The government shouldn't force pro-life pharmacists or any other health care providers to violate their religious beliefs simply to appease a political agenda."
"This is not an uncompromising battle between access and conscience," added Steven O'Ban, also of Ellis, Li & McKinstry. "Despite the fact that Plan B is widely available in Washington, the new regulations prohibit pharmacies from refusing to stock the drug because of religious objections. This is neither necessary nor constitutional."
A hearing is still scheduled to be heard before Leighton next October.
State officials said it was too early to say whether they would appeal, reported the Seattle Times.
In the United States, pharmacists in states including Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota may refuse to dispense the morning after pill. Some states like California allow pharmacists to refuse only with employer approval.
"No health care professional should be forced to participate in destroying human life to preserve his or her professional license," said ADF senior counsel Gary McCaleb.