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Supreme Court rejects Washington pharmacists’ appeal of Plan B rule

Washington pharmacists can’t cite religious objections and refuse to dispense Plan B or other emergency contraceptives, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed Tuesday.

The Supreme Court, on a 5-3 vote, refused to hear the appeal of a case that has been back and forth in federal courts for Washington since shortly after the state Board of Pharmacy adopted the rule requiring pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception in 2007.

That refusal leaves standing a unanimous decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the rule does not unconstitutionally interfere with a pharmacist’s religious rights.

“With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline the appeal, this long-running case finally comes to a close,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a news release Tuesday.

The owners of Ralph’s Thriftway, an Olympia supermarket and pharmacy, sued shortly after the rules were adopted, contending that stocking Plan B and other emergency contraceptives violated their right to exercise their religion. U.S. District Court Ronald Leighton agreed, and issued a preliminary injunction against the rule.

The state appealed, and a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit overturned the injunction, saying rules were neutral as far as religion because all pharmacists had to abide by them. The panel said the rule should be tested on the “rational basis” standard.

Leighton held a 12-day trial in 2011, and again concluded the rules impinged on the pharmacists’ religious rights. The state appealed again, and last July the 9th Circuit panel again reversed Leighton, saying the rules are neutral and don’t discriminate against religious beliefs.

“All we are asking is to be able to live out the beliefs that we hold, as Americans have always been able to do, and to be able to refer patients for religious reasons, as the medical and pharmaceutical associations overwhelmingly recommend,” Kevin Stormans, a member of the family that owns Ralph’s Thriftway, said after the 2015 ruling.

The company appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the state argued the case is not a good one for resolving questions surrounding the free exercise of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment. On Tuesday, a majority of the eight-member court agreed although Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the appeal.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the court’s refusal to hear the case reaffirms a principle that health care a woman receives in Washington should be left to the patient and her health care provider.

“An individual pharmacist with moral objections can still have another pharmacist fill the prescription at the store, but this decision means that those objections won’t deny patients access to health care in Washington,” Inslee said.

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