July 27, 2015 — On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Washington state law requiring pharmacies to dispense all medicine, regardless of whether owners have religious objections, Reuters reports (Levine, Reuters, 7/23).
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they would appeal the decision either to the full 9th Circuit or to the Supreme Court (Schrader, The Bellingham Herald, 7/22).
The law, enacted in 2007, requires pharmacies to stock and dispense time-sensitive drugs for which there is a demand, including emergency contraception. The state permits individual pharmacists to defer prescriptions to other pharmacists at the same location, as long as doing so does not create delays.
Ralph's Thriftway Pharmacy owner Kevin Stormans and his family sued the state over the EC provision because of religious objections to the drugs. The family won at trial, but the state appealed. The case was headed for arguments in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2013 but was put on hold while the judges waited for the Supreme Court's decision on the federal contraceptive coverage rules (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/7/14).
In a unanimous decision, the 9th Circuit panel overturned the lower court decision and ruled that the "rules are rationally related to Washington's legitimate interest in ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications" (The Bellingham Herald, 7/22).
In the opinion, Circuit Judge Susan Graber wrote that the judges "are unconvinced" that the plaintiffs' request to operate a pharmacy without complying with state regulations on prescription drug access "is 'so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' Accordingly, we decline to recognize a new fundamental right" (Wetzstein/Howell, Washington Times, 7/23).
The court also noted that speed of delivery is critical for EC. 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" (Reuters, 7/23).
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) praised the decision. "Decisions regarding medical care -- including reproductive rights -- are appropriately between a patient and his or her medical professionals" (The Bellingham Herald, 7/22).