WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a ruling to stand that requires the owner of a Washington pharmacy, along with two of his pharmacists, to stock the morning-after pill despite their religious convictions regarding abortifacients.
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, which launched an investigation.
The following year, the state passed regulations requiring that pharmacies stock and dispense the morning-after pill, and the legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (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.
The pharmacy had asked for the right to provide referrals rather than provide Plan B and Ella themselves, but while the regulations allow for referrals for a number of reasons, religious protections are not included.
“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,” said ADF Senior Vice President of Legal Services Kristen Waggoner.
In 2012, 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 rules] 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,” it declared.
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. Last July, the court unanimously ruled that Ralph’s Thriftway must stock the drugs despite the pharmacy’s 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. “Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception and of many other medications.”
She said that “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.”
Ralph’s Thriftway consequently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on Tuesday, the justices declined to hear the case, allowing the lower court ruling requiring that the contraceptives be stocked to stand. Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“This case is an ominous sign. At issue are Washington State regulations that are likely to make a pharmacist unemployable if he or she objects on religious grounds to dispensing certain prescription medications,” Alito wrote. “[T]here is much evidence that the impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the state.”
“Yet the Ninth Circuit held that the regulations do not violate the First Amendment, and this Court does not deem the case worthy of our time,” he lamented. “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Ralph’s Thriftway in court, likewise expressed disappointment.
“All Americans should be free to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of unjust punishment, and no one should be forced to participate in the taking of human life,” said Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner. “We had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would take this opportunity to reaffirm these long-held principles.”
“The state of Washington allows pharmacists to refer customers for just about any reason—except reasons of conscience,” she explained. “Singling out people of faith and denying them the same freedom to refer is a violation of federal law.”