Pharmacists’ religious liberty upheld by court

By Staff
Feb 23, 2012

WASHINGTON (BP) — A federal judge has upheld the conscience rights of health care professionals regarding abortion-causing drugs.

Judge Ronald Leighton ruled Feb. 22 that Washington state’s Board of Pharmacy violated the religious freedom of pro-life pharmacists by requiring them to stock and dispense pills that can cause abortions and barring them from referring customers to other pharmacies.

Religious liberty advocates applauded the opinion, and at least one pro-life organization contended the ruling demonstrated how out of step the Obama administration’s contraceptive/abortion mandate is.

Ruling from Tacoma, Wash., Leighton said the pharmacy board’s 2007 rules targeted abortion-causing drugs — such as the “morning-after” pill and “ella” — and “conscientious objectors.” After the board drafted rules that included a conscience clause for pharmacists, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregorie protested and threatened to fire the board members, Leighton said in his 48-page opinion. The board relented under pressure from Gregorie and two abortion rights organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the judge wrote.

The rules that were adopted as a result “are not neutral, and they are not generally applicable,” Leighton wrote. “They were designed instead to force religious objectors to dispense [an abortion-causing drug], and they sought to do so despite the fact that refusals to deliver for all sorts of secular reasons were permitted.

“In effect, the rules force them to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood.

“The facts of this case lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Board’s rules discriminate intentionally and impinge [the pharmacists’] fundamental right to free exercise of religion,” Leighton said.

Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said in a written statement, “Today’s decision sends a very clear message: No individual can be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs. If the state allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for economic, business, and convenience reasons, it has to allow them to refer for reasons of conscience.”

Leighton’s decision came as strong opposition continues to be expressed to the Obama administration’s recently instituted requirement that health plans cover contraceptives and sterilization without charge to employees. Those federally approved contraceptives include drugs that can act as abortifacients. The Obama-endorsed rule fails to provide an adequate exemption for those who oppose the mandate on religious or conscience grounds, critics point out.

“Just as the Obama Administration is trying to force religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for life-ending drugs against their conscience beliefs, a federal district court has ruled that such an action is unconstitutional,” Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said in a written release. “This highlights just how radical the Obama Administration is in its unprecedented attempt to force religious institutions and all Americans to fund life-ending drugs.”

Last year, an Illinois court invalidated a similar rule, declaring it violated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and state laws.

The “morning-after” pill, also known as emergency contraception, can restrict ovulation in a woman or prevent fertilization, but it also can block implantation of the early embryo in the uterine wall. The latter effect would cause an abortion. Plan B is the leading “morning-after” pill.

Considered by the federal government to be emergency contraception, “ella” is more closely related to the abortion drug RU 486, according to pro-life organizations. Like RU 486, it blocks production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the tiny, unborn child’s death. Ella also can block implantation.

The Becket Fund and the Alliance Defense Fund represented a pharmacy and two pharmacists in the lawsuit against the state of Washington.

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