Pharmacies objected to dispensing emergency contraceptives
SEATTLE — The United States Supreme Court today declined to review a case challenging Washington state rules adopted to ensure that patients have timely access to medication, including emergency contraceptives. Attorney General Bob Ferguson had asked the court to decline review in a brief filed with the high court.
“Patients should know that when they need medication, they won’t be refused based on the personal views of a particular pharmacy owner,” Ferguson added. “The appeals court ruling upheld today protects that principle.”
After a unanimous ruling in the state’s favor by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July 2015, the plaintiffs in Stormans v. Wiesman filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs refused to fill valid prescriptions for emergency contraceptives based on their religious beliefs. Such refusals led to patients around the state being denied access to emergency contraceptives and other time-sensitive medications.
The challenged rules, adopted by the Washington Board of Pharmacy (now the Pharmacy Commission), require that pharmacies ensure patients have timely access to medication — including emergency contraception — while preserving the right of conscience of individual pharmacists.
With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline the appeal, this long-running case finally comes to a close.
This case, formerly known as Stormans v. Selecky, has a long history. The rules at issue were adopted by the Washington Board of Pharmacy in 2007, after a lengthy process of discussion and public comment.
Stormans, Inc., doing business as Ralph’s Thriftway, and two pharmacists who work elsewhere sued in federal court shortly after the rules were adopted. The plaintiffs objected to stocking and dispensing the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella.
At the trial level, in 2007, Judge Ronald B. Leighton of the federal District Court for the Western District of Washington concluded that the rules violated the First Amendment by impinging on the plaintiffs’ exercise of their religion. Judge Leighton issued a preliminary injunction blocking the rules from being enforced.
The state appealed, and in 2009 the Ninth Circuit reversed the preliminary injunction, concluding that the rules were neutral toward religion and generally applicable to all pharmacists and pharmacies and thus should be reviewed under the “rational basis” test, which asks whether the state has any rational basis for the rules. The Ninth Circuit sent the case back to Judge Leighton for review under this standard.
Judge Leighton instead allowed the case to proceed to a 12-day trial in 2011. Although nothing about the rules had changed since the Ninth Circuit’s 2009 ruling and the rules had not been enforced in the interim, Judge Leighton again concluded that the rules violated the First Amendment by impinging on the plaintiffs’ exercise of their religion.
The state appealed that decision in 2012. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court ruling in July 2015, agreeing that the rules are neutral and generally applicable and do not discriminate against religious beliefs.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working hard to protect consumers and seniors against fraud, keep our communities safe, protect our environment and stand up for our veterans. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov