A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the state of Washington cannot force pharmacies to sell Plan B or other emergency contraceptives if it violates their religious beliefs and accused the state of being more concerned with suppressing religious liberty than promoting access to the drugs.
CNSNews.com is reporting that U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in a case involving a pharmacy in Olympia, Washington and two licensed pharmacists who claim that dispensing Plan B would infringe on their religious beliefs. The state requires pharmacies to dispense any medication for which there is a community need and to stock a representative assortment of drugs needed by their patients.
Ralph’s Thriftway and two other pharmacists sued the state in 2007, saying that dispensing Plan B would infringe on their religious beliefs because use of the drug can cause the destruction of human life.
Known as the morning-after pill, Plan B contains a high dose of the same hormones found in birth-control pills and, if taken 72 hours after unprotected sex, can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
The state argued that the requirements are legal because they apply neutrally to all medicines and pharmacies, and that they promote a government interest – the timely delivery of medicine, including Plan B, which becomes less effective as time passes.
But Judge Leighton ruled that because the state allows all sorts of other exemptions to that rule, it should also allow for a religious exemption.
For example, pharmacies can decline to stock a drug, such as certain painkillers, if it’s likely to increase the risk of theft, or if it requires an inordinate amount of paperwork, or if the drug is temporarily unavailable from suppliers, among other reasons.
“The most compelling evidence that the rules target religious conduct is the fact the rules contain numerous secular exemptions,” Leighton ruled. “In sum, the rules exempt pharmacies and pharmacists from stocking and delivering lawfully prescribed drugs for an almost unlimited variety of secular reasons, but fail to provide exemptions for reasons of conscience.”
While he did not strike down the rules, he said the way they were applied to the plaintiffs in this case was unconstitutional. The state remains free to try to enforce the law against other pharmacies that violated the stocking and dispensing rules, whether for Plan B or other drugs.
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