Defending freedom of conscience

Can the state require a person to choose between their livelihood and their conscience?  Today, a federal court upheld the civil rights of two pharmacists and a pharmacy owner who challenged new state regulations that would require them to stock and dispense “morning after” drugs, contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs.

The case was handled by two ELM lawyers, Kristen Waggoner and Steve O’Ban, with assistance from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Before 2007, pharmacists were legally permitted to refer patients to neighboring pharmacies for reasons of conscience, and for a wide variety of other business, economic, or convenience reasons.  During that year, the Washington State Board of Pharmacy passed new regulations that prohibited pharmacies from declining to stock or dispense medications for reasons of conscience—even though the Board found no evidence that anyone in Washington had ever been unable to obtain a morning-after pill (or any other time-sensitive medication) in a timely fashion because of religious objections.

Because of the new regulations, one of the plaintiff pharmacists lost her job for exercising her right of conscience; another plaintiff pharmacist was told she would have to transfer to another state; and Kevin Stormans, the owner of the pharmacy at Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, faced repeated investigations and threats of punishment from the State Board of Pharmacy.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that the regulations were unconstitutional because pharmacies could still refuse to stock or dispense drugs for secular, but not religious reasons.  Furthermore, the court noted that legislative history demonstrated that the rules “were intended to target religious objectors.”  The court issued a permanent injunction declaring the regulations unconstitutional and prohibiting that state from enforcing the regulations against the plaintiffs.

ELM is honored to have defended our clients’ right of conscience.  Judge Leighton’s ruling is a significant victory for constitutionally protected civil liberties imperiled by state action.