A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Washington state cannot require pharmacists to dispense emergency contraceptives if to do so violates their religious beliefs.
U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton declared the state regulation unconstitutional because it trampled on pharmacists' right to "conscientious objection."
The ruling only applies to Washington state but is sure to reverberate nationally, as it comes in the midst of a roiling political debate about a new federal regulation mandating that all health insurance plans - even those sponsored by religious employers - provide free birth control.
Several religiously affiliated universities have sued to block that insurance regulation. Their arguments are similar to those that prevailed in the pharmacy case - namely, that the government has no right to compel individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat who had pushed for the pharmacy mandate in an effort to ensure women's access to contraception, had no immediate comment. A spokesman for the state pharmacy board said officials there were still studying the ruling.
The lawsuit was brought by a drugstore owner and two of his pharmacists, all of whom shared the religious conviction that emergency contraceptives are tantamount to abortion, because they can block a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. They refused to stock or dispense the medication, often referred to by the brand name Plan B, and sued to block the regulation.
"I'm just thrilled that the court ruled to protect our constitutional right of conscience," one of the pharmacists, Margo Thelen, said in a statement issued through her attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
In his 48-page opinion, Leighton noted that Washington permitted pharmacy owners to decide they won't stock certain medications for any number of "secular reasons" - because they drugs are expensive, for example, or inconvenient to dispense, or because they simply don't fit into the store's business plan. Yet the rule did not allow pharmacists to assert a religious reason for keeping certain drugs off their shelves.
"A pharmacy is permitted to refuse to stock oxycodone because it fears robbery, but the same pharmacy cannot refuse to stock Plan B because it objects on religious grounds," the judge wrote. "Why are these reasons treated differently under the rules?"
The judge also accused the state of enforcing the mandate selectively, noting that regulators had not opened cases against the many Catholic-affiliated pharmacies in the state that also refuse to dispense Plan B.
Last spring, a state judge in Illinois struck down a similar law requiring pharmacies to dispense emergency contraception. A handful of other states, including California, New Jersey and Wisconsin, have laws requiring pharmacies to fill all valid prescriptions, but loopholes allow pharmacists with moral objections to refer the patient to another drugstore.
Six states explicitly allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives, and several more have broad right-to-conscience laws that provide some protection to pharmacists as well as to other healthcare professionals.
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Eric Beech)