An Illinois appeals court's ruling on the conscience rights of pharmacists is being hailed as a victory for religious freedom and could offer hope to current lawsuits challenging the federal contraception mandate.

"Government can't force pharmacists and pharmacies to violate their religious beliefs to stay in business," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has been co-representing the pharmacists for seven years.

Rienzi told CNA on Sept. 24 that the ruling provides a "useful" parallel in examining the controversial Health and Human Services mandate that forces many religious employers to violate their sincere beliefs by providing health insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs.

"I think the same principle would apply," he said.

On Sept. 21, an Illinois appellate court held that the state cannot force pharmacies and pharmacists to sell early abortion-inducing drugs if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

The ruling comes after seven years of litigation over a state mandate requiring all pharmacies and pharmacists to sell Plan B, known as the "morning after pill." Pharmacists who did not comply were threatened with penalties, including fines and "the loss of professional licenses."

Several pharmacists and pharmacies that hold moral objections to the morning-after pill because it can cause the abortion of a human embryo filed lawsuits.

A circuit court ruled that "the plaintiffs had sincere religious beliefs preventing them from dispensing emergency contraceptives" and issued a permanent injunction preventing the state from enforcing the mandate against them.

The court of appeals has now affirmed the injunction, arguing that pharmacists and pharmacies are protected under the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

More in US

This law prohibits discrimination in health care licensing due to religious objections that prevent cooperation with certain procedures or products.

Rienzi said that the state mandate is an instance of "religious discrimination, as surely as a fine on going to church."

He noted that in the Illinois case, the defendants made the same argument put forward by the Obama administration in defending the contraception mandate, claiming that the right to religious freedom is surrendered when one enters a for-profit business. However, the court rejected this argument, he said.

The Becket Fund was also involved in a recent Washington state case where a federal court struck down a similar requirement.

Rienzi finds rulings like these encouraging for the ongoing fight over the contraception mandate. More than 80 plaintiffs across the country have filed lawsuits challenging that mandate and the threat that it poses to their free exercise of religion.

The contraception mandate is "particularly offensive," Rienzi said, because there are numerous other ways for the government to ensure that women have access to contraception without forcing objecting employers to facilitate it.

"There's no need to do this," he explained. "These are religious beliefs that people have lived with just fine for our whole history."

(Story continues below)