Supreme Court rejects Olympia pharmacists’ Plan B appeal

FILE PHOTO: Judy Mallinger and Elaine Degroot stand in front of Ralph's Thriftway in 2006 to protest Ralph’s decision not to stock emergency contraception.
FILE PHOTO: Judy Mallinger and Elaine Degroot stand in front of Ralph's Thriftway in 2006 to protest Ralph’s decision not to stock emergency contraception.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal from Olympia’s Stormans Inc. and its pharmacists, who said they have religious objections to dispensing Plan B or other emergency contraceptives.

The justices’ order leaves in place state rules adopted in 2007 following reports that some women had been denied access to emergency contraceptives that are effective when taken within a few days of unprotected sex. Under the rules, pharmacies must fill lawful prescriptions, but individual pharmacists with moral objections can refer patients to another pharmacist, as long as it’s at the same store.

Stormans, which owns Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, a supermarket that includes a pharmacy, sued, along with two pharmacists who said the rules required them to violate their religious beliefs.

Kristen Waggoner, the lead attorney for Stormans in the case, said Tuesday that since many pharmacists work alone, the inability to refer an emergency contraceptive prescription to another pharmacy — when other prescriptions can be referred — puts pharmacists in a position of violating their conscience.

“The state needs to not make a value judgment that a religiously motivated referral is not permissible when other referrals are,” she said, adding that another lawsuit could ultimately occur if the state doesn’t enforce the rules “in an even-handed manner.”

Kevin Stormans, president of Stormans, said Tuesday, “I was disappointed at the decision made by the Supreme Court. I will meet with my family and discuss further actions.”

But Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson lauded the high court’s decision to not hear the case.

“Patients should know that when they need medication, they won’t be refused based on the personal views of a particular pharmacy owner,” Ferguson said. “The appeals court ruling upheld today protects that principle.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas were in the minority in saying they would have heard the appeal.

Calling the court’s action an “ominous sign,” Alito wrote a stinging 15-page dissent for the three justices. “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” he wrote.

A trial judge twice ruled for the pharmacists in the long-running lawsuit, but twice the ruling was overturned by the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Sold as Plan B, emergency contraception is a high dose of the drug found in many birth-control pills. It can lower the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

Some critics consider the pill related to abortion, although it is different from the abortion pill RU-486 and has no effect on women who already are pregnant.

In 2006, the federal Food and Drug Administration made the morning-after pill available to adults without prescription.

The case is Stormans Inc. v. Wiesman, 15-862.

Ben Muir of The Olympian contributed to this report.