Church-State Group Files Amicus Brief Against Wash. Pharmacists

A church-state watchdog group has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Washington State Board of Pharmacy in a case where pharmacists refused to supply contraception over religious objections.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the brief on Tuesday in the case against Ralph's Thriftway, whose pharmacy refuses to comply with state rules regarding contraception.

"The Washington State regulatory scheme at issue strikes a careful, appropriate balance between the religious freedom of pharmacists and that of their patients. Individual pharmacists are given the right to decline to fill prescriptions if doing so would be contrary to their personal religious or moral beliefs," reads the brief.

"The regulatory scheme thus prevents an individual pharmacist's religious beliefs from being foisted onto a patient who may hold quite different beliefs."

In 2006, the Washington State Board of Pharmacy considered implementing rules mandating all pharmacists in the state to supply emergency contraceptives with exemptions for pharmacists who had religious objections.

By 2007, however, the rules did not guarantee exemption for businesses and soon afterwards a suit was brought on behalf of the family-owned Ralph's pharmacy in Olympia as well as two individual pharmacists.

In February, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that the state's mandate was unconstitutional in that it violated the rights of those who hold religious objections. The suit was then sent to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"This win is an important battle in the national war for conscience protection," said Eric Rassbach, then-deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in an earlier interview with The Christian Post.

"That mandate is unconstitutional for the same reasons Washington State's rules are. Whether in Washington, D.C., or Washington State, freedom of religion must be protected, and must be fought for. We think this ruling is a preview of what will happen to the federal mandate."

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United and one of the signatories for the amicus brief, told The Christian Post how his organization became involved in the case.

"We do not believe that the First Amendment's protections for religious freedom should be used as a sword to impose the beliefs of one faith upon those who do not share the faith. That curtails religious freedom instead of advancing it," said Luchenitser.

"If the district court's decision is upheld, pharmacies like Ralph's will be able to foist their religious beliefs about what medicines are moral and permissible upon patients who do not share those religious beliefs."

Luchenitser told CP that the Washington State regulations, similar to the federal government's regulations, already provide sufficient protection for religious conscience.

"Religiously-affiliated organizations also are not required to provide contraceptive coverage themselves; instead, insurance companies are required to make the coverage available directly to employees," said Luchenitser.

"Like Washington's pharmacy regulations, the federal contraceptive-coverage regulations strike a careful balance between the concerns of religious objectors and the rights of health-care consumers who don't share in the objectors' religious beliefs."

A representative of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty did not return a request for comment by press time.

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