Washington State Capitulates, Sees Pro-Life Pharmacists’ Conscience Rights
by Steven Ertelt
July 9, 2010
Olympia, WA (LifeNews.com) — Less than two weeks before a trial in Tacoma federal court, attorneys for the State of Washington told a federal judge that it would create new rules for pharmacists with conscientious objections to dispensing the morning after pill that can sometimes cause an abortion.
Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that had temporarily put on hold a requirement for pharmacists to dispense all legal drugs.
Under pressure from pro-abortion Gov. Chris Gregoire, the pharmacy board approved rules in 2007 making pharmacists dispense all drugs, including those that would violate their moral or religious views.
The drugs could also include the lethal cocktails physicians order for patients to kill themselves under the state’s new law authorizing assisted suicide.
Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy and two pharmacists are behind the lawsuit and the decision to allow new rules could give them and their colleagues what they desired all along: the right to refuse to stock or dispense Plan B (the so-called "morning after pill") based on their conscientious objection.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty helps the plaintiffs in defeat Washington’s motion for summary judgment and the legal group said the decision is an enormous about-face for the state of Washington, which has for several years maintained that it had to restrict the religious freedoms of pharmacies and pharmacists in order to ensure patient access
Eric Rassbach, National Director of Litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the state, in its filing, concedes that allowing pharmacists with conscientious objections to refer patients to other pharmacies "is a time-honored pharmacy practice" that is "often in the best interest of patients, pharmacies, and pharmacists" and "do[es] not pose a threat to timely access to lawfully prescribed medications."
Based on the State’s representations, the Plaintiffs have agreed to allow the trial to be postponed while the Washington State Board of Pharmacy undertakes its rule-making process.
"This sends a clear signal to Governor Christine Gregoire that her bullying tactics are not acceptable. First she threatened to fire the members of the State Board of Pharmacy if they did not agree with her; then, she tried to pressure the pharmacy by joining a boycott against Ralph’s Thriftway," Rassbach said.
"It may come as a surprise to her, but conscientious and principled people like the owners and pharmacists of Ralph’s Thriftway are the backbone of this country," he added.
"Americans should not be forced out of their professions solely because of their religious beliefs–but that is exactly what Washington State sought to do," said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at The Becket Fund. "The government should accommodate and protect the fundamental rights of all members of the medical profession, not punish some members because of their religious beliefs."
Legal Voice, a group that intervened in the case to defend the regulations, has already decried Washington’s change, calling it an "outrage."
The lawsuit was filed by a small grocery and pharmacy in Olympia owned by the Stormans family, as well as two individual pharmacists. The lower court issued an injunction against the new rules, on the basis that the suit was likely to succeed.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that pharmacists can refuse to fill a prescription for the morning after pill or other objectionable drugs if they refer the customer to another store where they can get the order filled.
"On the issue of free exercise of religion alone, the evidence before the court convinces it that the plaintiffs … have demonstrated both a likelihood of success on the merits and the possibility of irreparable injury," Leighton wrote.
The pro-abortion groups ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the pro-abortion Northwest Women’s Law Center asked the appeals court for Judge Leighton’s injunction to be overturned.
The abortion proponents object to the "refuse and refer" system the injunction set up whereby objecting pharmacists can refused to dispense the drug and refer customers to another pharmacy.
The state board approved the new rules on a unanimous vote saying that pharmacists can’t get in the way of a patient’s "right" to a prescription.
The new rules allow pharmacists to opt out of dispensing the drug, but only if a colleague is available at the pharmacy at the time the customer wants the drug. Pharmacy owners are not given an option to exercise their rights.
But pro-life pharmacists said in their lawsuit that the law forces them into "choosing between their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs."
The lawsuit followed a survey showing a majority of Americans believe pharmacists should be given a conscience clause to protect their moral and religious views.
The Baraga Interactive polling firm conducted the survey for Pharmacists for Life International and found that a majority of Americans favor optional coverage of so-called "birth control," and favor pharmacists being able to enjoy freedom of conscience regarding when to not fill or counsel for drugs.
Sixty-five percent support a pharmacist’s right to decline to fill or counsel for prescription drugs which violate their moral or religious views.
California, New Jersey and Illinois have laws similar to those in Washington while Arkansas, Georgia, South Dakota and Mississippi have laws that support the pharmacist’s right to opt out of dispensing drugs that violate their moral or religious views.
Related web sites:
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – https://www.becketfund. org
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