Becket Fund Defends Conscience Rights of Pharmacists in Washington State

In defense of a family-owned pharmacy in the state of Washington, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty just filed a petition for a full, eleven-judge hearing at the 9th Circuit federal court of appeals. A three-judge panel of the same court ruled earlier this month that the pharmacy will likely have to abide by a State Board of Pharmacy rule that forces pharmacists to sell the so-called morning after pill, or Plan B, even when doing so violates their conscience.

“No Americans should be forced out of their profession solely because of their religious beliefs–but that is exactly what these regulations are designed 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.”

This controversy started in 2006 when the State Pharmacy Board unanimously supported a conscience protection for pharmacy workers. The Board issued a regulation allowing pharmacists with religious objections to refrain from dispensing Plan B and refer women to nearby suppliers. Governor Christine Gregoire soon learned about the protection and publicly threatened to fire the Board’s members. Matters escalated when the State’s Human Rights Commission insinuated that Board members could be held personally liable for gender discrimination laws if they supported the regulation. Buckling under these pressures, the Board voted to reconsider its decision to protect pharmacists’ rights and instead adopted new language mandating pharmacists to 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 an y 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.

“America has a long and storied tradition of protecting conscientious objectors – from George Washington’s support of 18th Century Quakers who would not join the militia, to the Supreme Court’s protection of World War II-era Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not pledge allegiance to the Flag. Forcing a prison nurse to administer a lethal injection or a pharmacist to dispense Plan B in violation of their conscience not only contradicts this tradition, but ultimately weakens the rights of all citizens,” added Goodrich.

The Becket Fund filed the brief jointly with Kristin Waggoner and Steven O’Ban of the Seattle firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC.

Based in Washington, D.C., The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonpartisan public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.

For more information or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, email Kristina Arriaga, Communications Director, at, or call 703.582.8962, or contact Montserrat Alvarado, Assistant Communications Director, at

Other sources:

The Becket Fund has been involved in the defense of healthcare workers’ conscience rights at the federal level, issuing an official comment to the Obama Administration proposal to eliminate a regulation that protects the conscience rights of health care workers. The regulations, which went into effect on January 20, protect the rights of health care workers who want to opt out of performing procedures or dispensing medications that would violate their conscience.

On April 8, the Becket Fund submitted a response which carefully detailed the history of conscientious objection and the legal and historical support for the right of conscience in the health care profession.

9th Circuit Court’s opinion

Original 2006 State Board of Pharmacists draft language Letter from Christine O. Gregoire, Governor of Washington State, to Dr. Asaad Awan, Chair, Washington State Board of Pharmacy (June 1, 2006)


Pharmacists Response: I, II, III

Petition for Rehearing

Related Press Coverage:

AP Reports

Seattle Times Reports

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