TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- Washington state may not force pharmacies to sell Plan B or other emergency contraceptives, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, saying the state's true goal is to suppress religious objections by druggists — not to promote timely access to the medicines for people who need them.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton heard closing arguments earlier this month in a lawsuit that claimed state rules violate the constitutional rights of pharmacists by requiring them to dispense such medicine. The state requires pharmacies to dispense any medication for which there is a community need and to stock a representative assortment of drugs needed by their patients.
Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, Wash., and two licensed Washington pharmacists sued in 2007, saying that dispensing Plan B would infringe on their religious beliefs because it can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. The state argued that the requirements are legal because they apply neutrally to medicines and pharmacies, and that they promote a government interest — the timely delivery of medicine, including Plan B, which becomes less effective as time passes.
But Leighton said Wednesday that the state allows all sorts of business exemptions to that rule. Pharmacies can decline to stock a drug, such as certain painkillers, if it's likely to increase the risk of theft, or if it requires an inordinate amount of paperwork, or if the drug is temporarily unavailable from suppliers, among other reasons.
If the state allows exemptions for non-religious reasons, he said, it must also allow them for religious or moral ones, he said.
"The rules force a pharmacy to choose between compliance with delivery and stocking rules and employing a conscientious objector as a pharmacist," he said.
The judge blocked the state dispensing rule in 2007, finding that it would violate the plaintiffs' freedom of religion. But a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel overruled him, saying that he applied the wrong legal standard and that the rule appeared constitutional because it was neutral and did not directly target religious views.
The appellate court sent the case back to Leighton, telling him to apply the correct standard. He held an 11-day trial to flesh out the matter, and said that he was issuing his ruling with the benefit of a more complete understanding of the rules than the 9th Circuit judges had.
At the early February hearing, Leighton said the contraceptive issue is more important than many other freedom-of-religion cases, such as those concerning religious dress or other ceremonial matters.
Plan B had been at the center of the state's decision in 2007 to adopt the Washington Board of Pharmacy's dispensary requirements. The drug, which has a high dose of medicine found in birth-control pills, is effective in preventing pregnancy if a woman takes it within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Individual pharmacists were allowed to pass a prescription to another druggist in the same store, provided the order is not delayed. But that leaves no option for a lone pharmacist or a pharmacy owner with religious objections to a particular drug.
The pharmacists argued they can easily and quickly refer customers to nearby drug stores willing to sell the drug, but women's rights groups said that may not be the case in rural areas. It might also be difficult for those with disabilities if their pharmacists decide not to dispense it for personal reasons, they said.