Washington State Capitulates, Recognizes Pharmacists’ Conscience Rights

This afternoon, less than two weeks before the start of a civil rights trial in Tacoma federal court, attorneys for the State of Washington told a federal judge that the State would seek to create new rules for pharmacists with conscientious objections. The new regulations would give the plaintiffs in the lawsuit–the owners of Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy and two pharmacists–what they’ve wanted all along: the right to refuse to stock or dispense Plan B (the so-called “morning after pill”) based on their conscientious objection.

This is an enormous about-face for the State, which has for several years maintained that it had to restrict the religious freedoms of pharmacies and pharmacists in order to ensure patient access to the morning after pill. In its filing today, however, the State concedes that allowing pharmacists with conscientious objections to refer patients to other pharmacies “is a time-honored pharmacy practice” that is “often in the best interest of patients, pharmacies, and pharmacists” and “do[es] not pose a threat to timely access to lawfully prescribed medications.” Based on the State’s representations, the Plaintiffs have agreed to allow the trial to be postponed while the Washington State Board of Pharmacy undertakes its rule-making process.  Washington State is capitulating less than a month after The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty<http://www.becketfund. org> helped Plaintiffs defeat Washington’s motion for summary judgment.

“This sends a clear signal to Governor Christine Gregoire that her bullying tactics are not acceptable. First she threatened to fire the members of the State Board of Pharmacy if they did not agree with her; then, she tried to pressure the pharmacy by joining a boycott against Ralph’s Thriftway,” said Eric Rassbach, National Director of Litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It may come as a surprise to her, but conscientious and principled people like the owners and pharmacists of Ralph’s Thriftway are the backbone of this country.”

The controversy began in 2006 when the State Board of Pharmacy unanimously supported a rule protecting conscience for pharmacy workers. The Board voted in favor of a regulation allowing pharmacists with religious objections to refrain from dispensing Plan B and to refer patients to nearby suppliers. Governor Gregoire soon learned about the protection, publicly threatened to fire the Board’s members, and even called them late at night to lobby them. Matters escalated when the State’s Human Rights Commission insinuated that Board members could be held personally liable under gender discrimination laws if they supported the regulation.

Buckling under these pressures, the Board decided to reconsider the issue and instead adopted new language mandating pharmacies to stock and dispense the medication even when doing so violates their conscience. The Board adopted this regulation even though it admitted it found no evidence that anyone in the state had ever been unable to obtain Plan B (or any other time-sensitive medication) due to religious objections. The Becket Fund’s clients, a family owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists, filed suit to prevent the new regulation from forcing them out of their profession.

“Americans should not be forced out of their professions solely because of their religious beliefs–but that is exactly what Washington State sought to do,” said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at The Becket Fund. “The government should accommodate and protect the fundamental rights of all members of the medical profession, not punish some members because of their religious beliefs.”

Legal Voice, a group that intervened in the case to defend the regulations, has already decried Washington’s change, calling it an “outrage.”

The Becket Fund represents the plaintiffs along with Kristin Waggoner and Steven O’Ban of the Seattle firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC.

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