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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington can force pharmacies to dispense emergency contraceptives, court says

Gene Johnson Associated Press
SEATTLE — Washington state can force pharmacies to dispense Plan B or other emergency contraceptives, a federal appeals court said Thursday in a long-running lawsuit brought by pharmacists who said they have religious objections to providing the drugs. The unanimous decision Thursday by the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2012 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton, who had found that the state’s rules violated the religious freedom of pharmacy owners. It was the second time the appeals court reversed Leighton in the case. Washington adopted rules in 2007 following reports that some women had been denied access to Plan B, which has a high dose of medicine found in birth-control pills and is effective if a woman takes it within a few days of unprotected sex. The rules said pharmacies must fulfill lawful prescriptions, but allowed individual pharmacists to refer patients to another pharmacist at the store if they have moral objections to fulfilling certain prescriptions. A Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy and two pharmacists sued, saying the rules required them to violate their religious beliefs, because the drugs can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, which they consider equal to abortion. They argued that they should be allowed to refer patients to a nearby drug store rather than fulfill the prescription themselves. But the appeals judges — Susan P. Graber, Richard R. Clifton Mary H. Murguia — disagreed. “Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception and of many other medications,” Graber wrote. “The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs. Additionally, testimony at trial demonstrated how facilitated referrals could lead to feelings of shame in the patient that could dissuade her from obtaining emergency contraception altogether.” The court found that the rules were neutral, rather than targeted at suppressing the religious objections of the pharmacists. “The state of Washington has a clear interest in making sure women can get emergency contraception in a timely and safe manner,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a prepared statement. “A pharmacy owner’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t be permitted to undermine that access.” The Washington, D.C.-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which joined in the representation of the plaintiffs, called the decision unfortunate. “The government has no business punishing citizens solely because of their religious beliefs,” the group’s deputy general counsel, Luke Goodrich, said in a news release. “The pharmacists in this case willingly refer patients to over 30 pharmacies that stock the morning-after pill within a 5 mile radius, and no patient has ever been denied timely access to any drug.”
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