In a major reversal of their previous position, attorneys for the state of Washington have acknowledged the right of local pharmacies not to stock or dispense the emergency contraceptive pill Plan B.
On July 7, the state's attorneys told a federal judge that the Washington State Board of Pharmacy would begin revising its rules, to allow pharmacies to act on their conscientious objections to the controversial drug.
The state attorneys' new position may signal an end to a legal battle between the State Board of Pharmacy and owners of the local drugstore Ralph's Thriftway.
In 2006, the board initially granted all pharmacies the right not to stock or prescribe medications to which they objected on religious or moral grounds. However, the board later changed these rules after publicly coming under fire from Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire.
The subsequent change in policy attempted to force pharmacies to stock and dispense Plan B or other drugs regardless of religious or moral objections, prompting a legal challenge from Ralph's Thriftway. Its owners sued the state of Washington in 2007, asserting that their right to refuse to sell Plan B, in accordance with the state's original rules, was a matter of religious freedom.
In 2009, a federal judge sided with the store's owners, but had his ruling struck down on appeal.
On Wednesday, however, the board's lawyers acknowledged that pharmacies with religious or moral objections could refer those seeking Plan B to another drugstore, without interfering with patients' “timely access” to a “lawfully-prescribed medication.”
Eric Rassbach, the National Director of Litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the firm representing Ralph's Thriftway, interpreted the reversal as "a clear signal to Governor Christine Gregoire that her bullying tactics are not acceptable."
"First," Rassbach reported, "she threatened to fire the members of the State Board of Pharmacy if they did not agree with her; then, she tried to pressure the pharmacy by joining a boycott against Ralph's Thriftway.”
"It may come as a surprise to her, but conscientious and principled people like the owners and pharmacists of Ralph's Thriftway are the backbone of this country," he said.
Also commenting on the case was Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at The Becket Fund, who stated, "The government should accommodate and protect the fundamental rights of all members of the medical profession, not punish some members because of their religious beliefs.”
Attorneys for Ralph's Thriftway agreed to postpone the case from going to trial, while the pharmacy board considers the revisions to its rules.