A federal appeals court panel recently upheld a Washington law that says a pharmacy business must stock and fill lawful prescriptions requested by its customers, regardless of whether store owners have religious objections to a specific medication.
Kevin Stormans, whose family owns the Ralph’s Thriftway supermarket and pharmacy on Olympia’s east side, believes Plan B and similar morning-after contraceptive pills bring an end to human life after fertilization and violate his conservative Christian religious beliefs against abortion.
Several studies contradict the claim, but Stormans, president of the business, sued in 2007 to overturn the rule adopted as an administrative law by the Pharmacy Board. His attorneys contend that the First Amendment protects his religious right to refuse on Plan B.
Eight years after this saga began with a temporary community boycott of Ralph’s and other Stormans-owned enterprises, the case remains alive. So far the federal courts have split – with the U.S. District Court in Tacoma initially siding with Stormans and a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected the $2 million lawsuit claim. Stormans’ lawyers have now requested a hearing by the full 9th Circuit bench in San Francisco.
Both Plan B and ella can prevent a pregnancy from occurring if used in the days following sexual intercourse. Timely access is critically important.
In rural areas, one pharmacy may be the only reasonable option – short of driving dozens of miles. Time is of the essence for emergency contraceptives.
Although we strongly support women’s right to getting access to legal medications, we respect the Stormans family. Their operations include two supermarkets and other smaller enterprises. These local businesses treat both employees and the community well, and support charitable and civic efforts in town.
But refusing to stock and dispense medications is wrong. A pharmacy that provides health care to the community needs to operate more like a regulated utility – giving all customers the lawful medications they require.
If not, what’s to stop a pharmacy from denying hepatitis or antiviral HIV medications based on disapproving assumptions about the patient’s lifestyle?
The state Pharmacy Board rule does allow a religious exemption or exercise of conscience for individual pharmacists – who may refuse to dispense medications, but only if they refer the prescription to another staffer in a timely way.
The Stormans’ lawyers have argued they should also be able to refer customers to another pharmacy, which in the case of Ralph’s Thriftway might be practical. An attorney for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which joined the case backing Stormans and two Washington pharmacists, said Ralph’s pharmacists “willingly refer patients to over 30 pharmacies that stock the morning-after pill within a five-mile radius.’’
Since this long fight began, Plan B is now available without a prescription.
There have been comparisons to the Hobby Lobby case that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on in 2014, upholding the owners’ refusal to pay for employee health insurance plans that covered many contraceptives including Plan B. But Hobby Lobby’s claim relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which applies to federal programs such as the Affordable Care Act, but not to state rules.
The Stormans are relying on the First Amendment and the exercise of religious freedom.
Barring a reversal of judicial fortune, the Stormans family members may face a choice: Sell their pharmacy to owners willing to follow the law, or comply. That cannot be an easy decision for them.
Thus the fight goes on – possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
We hope the courts uphold a woman’s right to make her own choices, and pharmacies’ obligation to respect them.