No Pharmacy Owner Can Refuse Morning-After Pill in Washington, Court Rules

Samples of emergency contraceptive pills are displayed in this photo taken at a Buenos Aires public hospital January 2, 2007. | (Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian)

A federal appeals court has ruled that all pharmacy owners in Washington state are required to dispense emergency contraceptives even if it's against their religious beliefs.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has overturned a lower court ruling that had said the Board of Pharmacy regulations that require pharmacies to stock and dispense the emergency contraceptive Plan B were unconstitutional, according to Reuters.

The lower court ruling in a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Stormans owners of Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, and two pharmacists was challenged by Washington state and Planned Parenthood, after.

A unanimous three-judge panel ruled Thursday that the rules are constitutional as they rationally further the state's interest in patient safety. "The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs," wrote Judge Susan Graber.

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty called this week's decision "unfortunate."

"The government has no business punishing citizens solely because of their religious beliefs," Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel of the group, said in a statement.

According to the rules, which were upheld, individual employees can raise a religious objection provided another employee is willing to fill the prescription.

The Storman family says providing the morning-after and week-after pills is against their religious beliefs as the pills can induce early abortions.

However, the court held that the state law is "neutral" and "generally applicable" and therefore citizens must obey it irrespective of their religious beliefs.

The Hobby Lobby case won against the federal contraception mandate at the Supreme Court due to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restricts a government to "substantially burden" someone's free exercise of religion unless there is a "compelling government interest," which, too, use "least restrictive means" to fulfil that interest.

However, the federal law is not applicable to state laws and regulations.

The court said this week that Stormans failed to establish their belief that the contraceptive pills can induce abortions, and that their religious freedom is a "fundamental right" in this case.

"On balance, however, we are unconvinced that the right to own, operate, or work at a licensed professional business free from regulations requiring the business to engage in activities that one sincerely believes leads to the taking of human life is 'so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,'" the court said, referring to Snyder v. Massachusetts.

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