A federal appeals court unanimously ruled Thursday that Washington state regulations requiring pharmacies to fill all valid prescriptions, including for contraceptives, should take effect.
Washington pharmacy commissioners passed regulations in 2007 as a response to a series of incidents involving pharmacists who refused to dispense birth control, emergency contraception, and other medications because of religious objections. The regulations provide an exception for religious objections and permit pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription as long as a colleague will do so instead.
A federal district court blocked the regulations from taking effect in 2007 after a pharmacy and two pharmacists challenged the rules, arguing they violated their religious beliefs. Thursday’s decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reverses that lower court decision and paves the way for the regulations to take effect.
“The state of Washington has a clear interest in making sure women can get emergency contraception in a timely and safe manner,” Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, said in a statement following the decision. “A pharmacy owner’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t be permitted to undermine that access.”
Americans United joined reproductive rights advocates like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center in filing amicus briefs in the case. The briefs argued that Washington’s regulations are fully consistent with the tradition of religious liberty in the United States, which has always permitted states to enforce non-discriminatory laws aimed at protecting the health and safety of the public.
The decision is the latest in a string of losses for religious conservatives challenging contraceptive access across the country.
Despite hundreds of legal challenges, so far not a single federal appeals court has sided with claims by religiously affiliated nonprofits that the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act violates their religious rights. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration this month announced a work-around to the Hobby Lobby decision that would guarantee access to contraceptive coverage for employees whose employers object to complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.