Federal Court Rules Pharmacy Must Stock Morning-After Pill Despite Religious Beliefs

Photo Credit: Bryan Calabro
Photo Credit: Bryan Calabro

SEATTLE, Wash. — A federal appeals court has ruled that a pharmacy in Washington state must stock the morning after-pill despite the owner’s beliefs that the item is an abortifacient and thus contrary to his religious beliefs.

As previously reported, in 2006, Ralph’s Thriftway owner, Kevin Stormans, received a call inquiring whether the location sold the morning-after pill. After replying that the pharmacy did not carry it, he began to receive anonymous complaints via phone and email. Ralph’s Thriftway was soon also picketed and complaints were filed with the Washington Board of Pharmacy, who launched an investigation.

The following year, the state passed regulations requiring that pharmacies stock and dispense the morning-after pill, and ADF filed suit on behalf of Stormans and two of his pharmacists, Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen, who objected to the requirement because of their Christian faith.

Later that year, a federal court ruled in favor of Ralph’s Thriftway, stating that the new regulations “appear to intentionally place a significant burden on the free exercise of religion for those who believe life begins at conception.”

But the matter soon moved to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the regulations were placed on hold while the matter proceeded in court. On Thursday, the court unanimously ruled that Ralph’s Thriftway must stock Plan B despite his religious objections.

“The rules are rationally related to Washington’s legitimate interest in ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications,” Judge Susan Graber wrote for the panel.

She said that while the pharmacy was willing to offer referrals, doing so is not acceptable due to the urgency a woman might feel to obtain contraceptives.

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“Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception and of many other medications,” Graber wrote. “The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs.”

The court also opined that referrals could result in causing women to re-think taking the drug.

“Additionally, testimony at trial demonstrated how facilitated referrals could lead to feelings of shame in the patient that could dissuade her from obtaining emergency contraception altogether,” Graber stated. “In our view, the commission’s decision not to allow facilitated referrals falls within its stated goal of ensuring timely and safe delivery of prescription medications and, accordingly, does not demonstrate discriminatory intent.”

Stormans said that he is disappointed in the ruling and doesn’t believe that she should be forced to violate his conscience.

“The state allows pharmacies to refer for all kinds of reasons. In practice, it only bans religiously motivated referrals,” he said. “With 33 pharmacies stocking the drug within five miles of our store, it is extremely disappointing that the court and the state demand that we violate our conscience or lose our family business.”

“All we are asking is to be able to live out the beliefs that we hold, as Americans have always been able to do, and to be able to refer patients for religious reasons, as the medical and pharmaceutical associations overwhelmingly recommend,” he said.

Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), one of the legal groups that is fighting in defense of the pharmacy, likewise opined that the ruling was unjust.

“No one should be forced to choose between their religious convictions and their family businesses and livelihoods, particularly when the state allows referrals for just about any other reason,” she commented in a statement. “The premier medical and pharmaceutical associations all support the right of a provider to refer patients, and all other states allow such referrals.”

The decison will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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