Court Considering Impact of Hobby Lobby Decision on Washington Pharmacy Case

Birth Control pdSEATTLE — A federal appeals court in California is considering the impact of the Hobby Lobby decision on a separate case involving religious pharmacists in Washington state.

The same legal organizations that helped to defend the popular craft chain, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), are now fighting for the rights of Ralph’s Thriftway, a pharmacy near Seattle, Washington that seeks to overturn a state regulation that mandates the business to dispense of drugs that it considers to be abortifacients.

According to reports, 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.”

“The Board of Pharmacy’s 2007 rules are not neutral, and they are not generally applicable,” the court ruled. “They were designed instead to force religious objectors to dispense Plan B, and they sought to do so despite the fact that refusals to deliver for all sorts of secular reasons were permitted. The rules are unconstitutional as applied to Plaintiffs.”

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. The panel then further suspended the case while the Hobby Lobby challenge was being considered by the United States Supreme Court.

As previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in June that the federal government cannot force closely-held companies to obey regulations which violate the owners’ religious beliefs. The ruling was a victory for the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, who objected to Obama’s abortion pill mandate on the basis of their religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby has been providing birth control coverage to employees for years, but took issue with four contraceptives that it considered to be abortifacients.

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Following the ruling, the 9th Circuit requested that briefs be filed outlining how the Hobby Lobby ruling impacts the Ralph’s Thriftway case. This past week, ADF submitted its argument to the court.

“[I]t is undisputed that the effect of the regulations is to force Plaintiffs to choose between their religious exercise and their profession. That is a deeply troubling result in light of Hobby Lobby,” the Christian legal organization wrote.

“It is all the more troubling when the state has stipulated that Plaintiff’s conduct causes no harm; when there is ‘an existing, recognized, workable, and already-implemented’ alternative that fully meets the State’s goals…; when the State regularly permits that alternative for a host of non-religious reasons; and when 35 state and national pharmacy associations fully support the use of that alternative for religious reasons,” it continued.

“No one should be forced to choose between their deepest religious convictions and their profession,” added ADF Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner in a press release announcing the submission to the court. “Washington’s law is an extreme outlier. Many of the most respected medical and pharmaceutical associations, including the American Pharmacists Association, support the right of a provider to refer patients. The state allows providers to refer for nearly every other reason except conscience.”

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