Wash. Emergency Birth Control Regs Upheld By Federal Appeals Court

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of Washington state regulations that require pharmacies to fill prescriptions that their owners may find objectionable, a decision applauded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The July 23 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals protects Americans’ access to necessary medications and health care, AU said.

“The state of Washington has a clear interest in making sure women can get emergency contraception in a timely and safe manner,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, in a press release. “A pharmacy owner’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t be permitted to undermine that access.”

Washington pharmacy commissioners passed regulations in 2007 as a response to a spate of incidents involving pharmacists who refused to dispense birth control, emergency contraception and other medications. The same rules permit individual pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription as long as a colleague will do so instead.

Pharmacies, however, may not refuse to dispense the drugs entirely. The Stormans family, which owns Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy in Olym­pia, claimed that provision violated its religious-freedom rights and filed suit the same year. The family prevailed before a federal court in 2012, but the state appealed, arguing that it had a rational basis for requiring pharmacies to stock emergency contraception and other forms of medication.

The appeals court held that the regulations are neutral and don’t single out religion. The court also said the rules have a secular rationale of ensuring that state residents are able to get the medication they need.

“[T]he rules were rationally related to Washington’s legitimate interest in ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications,” explained the court. (Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman)