Americans United Urges Appeals Court To Uphold Access To Birth Control At Washington State Pharmacies

Church-State Watchdog Says Companies Have No ‘Religious Freedom’ Right To Refuse To Fill Drug Prescriptions

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked a federal appeals court to find that pharmacies do not have the right to opt out of filling certain prescriptions on religious or moral grounds.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in a Washington state case, Americans United urged the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow state officials to enforce a rule that requires pharmacies to stock when locally demanded – and fill prescriptions for – the so-called “morning-after” pill, also known as Plan B.

“Religious freedom is for people, not corporations,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Pharmacies are businesses, and they should not have the right to impose religion on anyone.”

The Stormans family owns Olympia-based Ralph’s Thriftway and has been arguing with the state Pharmacy Board since 2007 over enforcement of rules requiring medicines in demand locally to be dispensed. The Pharmacy Board had been investigating Ralph’s Thriftway for refusing to stock Plan B, but that investigation halted when the store owners filed a lawsuit.

Americans United cited several reasons in its brief why a district court decision in favor of the pharmacy should be reversed. The brief noted that the state regulations at issue strike a balance between the religious freedom of pharmacists and that of their patients because individual pharmacists may opt out of filling prescriptions, but pharmacies may not.   

The brief also argues that the regulations impose little burden on religious practice and allow for the objections of individual pharmacists. The regulations are also not motivated by hostility toward religion; instead, they advance a compelling governmental interest by ensuring that patients can obtain medications in a timely manner.

“The Free-Exercise Clause of the First Amendment should [not] be used as a sword to impose the beliefs of one faith upon those who do not share the faith,” the brief says. “That curtails religious freedom instead of advancing it.”

The brief in Stormans, Inc. v. Selecky, filed today, was authored by Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, and Madison Fellow Benjamin N. Hazelwood, in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. (Hazelwood is admitted in New York only, and is supervised by Khan, a member of the D.C. Bar.)

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.