The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal from Washington state pharmacists who said they have religious objections to dispensing Plan B or other emergency contraceptives.
The justices' order leaves in place rules first adopted in 2007 following reports that some women had been denied access to emergency contraceptives that are effective when taken within a few days of unprotected sex. Pharmacies must fill lawful prescriptions, but individual pharmacists with moral objections can refer patients to another pharmacist, as long as it's at the same store.
Stormans Inc., the owners of Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, a grocery store that includes a pharmacy, sued, along with two pharmacists who said the rules required them to violate their religious beliefs.
Kristen Waggoner, the lead attorney for Stormans in the case, said Tuesday that since many pharmacists work alone, the inability to refer an emergency contraceptive prescription to another pharmacy — when other prescriptions can be referred — puts pharmacists in a position of violating their conscience.
"The state needs to not make a value judgment that a religiously-motivated referral is not permissible when other referrals are," she said, saying that another lawsuit could ultimately occur if the state doesn't enforce the rules "in an even-handed manner."
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson lauded the high court's decision to not hear the case.
"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."
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the appeal.
Calling the court's action an "ominous sign," Alito wrote a stinging 15-page dissent for the three dissenting justices. "If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern," he wrote.
A trial judge twice ruled for the pharmacists in the long-running lawsuit, but was twice overturned by the federal appeals court in San Francisco.
Sold as Plan B, emergency contraception is a high dose of the drug found in many regular birth-control pills. It can lower the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Some critics consider the pill related to abortion, although it is different from the abortion pill RU-486 and has no effect on women who already are pregnant.
In 2006, the federal Food and Drug Administration made the morning-after pill available without prescription to adults.
The case is Stormans Inc. v. Wiesman, 15-862.