Owners of a pharmacy in Washington state must provide the morning-after contraceptive pill against their religious beliefs after a federal appeals court upheld a state mandate that they do so. “Today’s decision is unfortunate,” stated Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, on Thursday. “The government has no business punishing citizens solely because of their religious beliefs.” At issue is a 2005 state law that mandates pharmacies provide the morning-after and week-after contraceptive pills to customers even if they religiously object to doing so. Individual employees may recuse themselves from filling such prescriptions if they have a religious objection, but another employee must be present to fill the prescription. Pharmacies cannot simply refuse to fill the prescriptions while referring customers to other pharmacies that can do so, as the plaintiffs, owners of Ralph’s Thriftway store, had reportedly done in the past. The Storman family owns the pharmacy and religiously objects to providing the morning-after and week-after pills, believing that they can induce early abortions. Goodrich argued that the state regulations are unmatched in the burden they lay upon businesses. No state other than Washington makes such a requirement of pharmacies, he said. The Stormans initially won at the federal district court level in 2012 after a 12-day trial featuring around 800 exhibits and testimonies from persons responsible for drafting and enforcing the law. The district court found that the law violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion and discriminated against religiously-owned and operated businesses by carving out certain other protections for pharmacies that were not explicitly religious. For instance, pharmacies did not have to obey the mandate if a patient could not pay for the prescription or if they filled out a fraudulent prescription note. Yet a similar mandate did not apply for those who expressed religious opposition. The state, along with Planned Parenthood, appealed the case to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In its decision, the appeals court ruled that the law did not violate the First Amendment's protection of the free exercise of religion. The law is “neutral” and “generally applicable” — it doesn’t specifically target the practice of religion — so citizens must obey it regardless of their religious beliefs, the court said, adding that it fulfilled a compelling government interest of ensuring that everyone has access to contraception. In a similar case last year, the family-run craft chain Hobby Lobby won its argument against the federal contraception mandate at the Supreme Court. In that decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court ruled that a closely-held for-profit business like Hobby Lobby did not have to obey the federal mandate that it pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs in its employee health plans, because the government had failed to prove the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of fulfilling the “compelling government interest” of contraception coverage for women. Hobby Lobby invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that says the government cannot “substantially burden” someone’s free exercise of religion unless its meets certain criteria for doing so. The government must show that its action is in the “compelling government interest” and is the “least restrictive means” of fulfilling that interest. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, does not apply to state laws and regulations. And Washington has no state law that offers such protections for businesses, so the pharmacy owners had to argue their case on the merits of the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion and their constitutional right to due process “Because the rules do not infringe a fundamental right, they need only be ‘rationally related to legitimate government interests,’” the court concluded, adding that “the rules meet that test.” The plaintiffs did not establish their belief that the morning- and week-after contraceptives can induce abortions, and that their religious liberty interest in the case is a “fundamental right,” the court said. “On balance, however, we are unconvinced that the right to own, operate, or work at a licensed professional business free from regulations requiring the business to engage in activities that one sincerely believes leads to the taking of human life is ‘so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,’” the court said citing the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Massachusetts.
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