Stormans v. Wiesman

Your job or your conscience: a choice no American should have to make. Becket Fund fights for the constitutional right of pharmacists in Washington. 

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In 2005, the State of Washington ordered a family-owned pharmacy and two pharmacists to sell life-ending drugs in violation of their religious beliefs. The pharmacists fought back, winning a major victory in federal court in 2012. The victory was later overturned and in January 2016 the fight was taken all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Family behind the Pharmacy 

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over 60 years. They believe that life begins at conception, and therefore cannot sell the morning-after or week-after pills–both of which can potentially cause an abortion.

Instead, when a customer asks for one of these drugs, the pharmacists refer them to one of over 30 pharmacies within a five-mile radius that willingly offer these drugs. This referral process is approved by the American Pharmacists Association and has long been legal in all 50 states. None of the pharmacists’ customers have ever been denied timely access to any drug.

Government Coercion 

However, in 2005 several abortion-rights groups lobbied to change the rules in Washington State. Although the Washington State Pharmacy Commission initially supported the right of conscience, Governor Christine Gregoire threatened to disband the Commission, replaced several dissenting Commission members with new members recommended by abortion rights activists, and personally joined a boycott of the Stormans’ family pharmacy. Buckling under pressure, the Commission adopted a new regulation requiring pharmacies to sell the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs.

The new regulation, in practice, allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of business, economic, and convenience reasons—such as a when a drug is unprofitable, attracts an undesirable clientele, or falls outside the pharmacy’s chosen business niche. But it forbids referral for one–and only one–reason: conscience. The Board adopted this regulation even though it admitted that no one in the State has ever been denied timely access to any drug because of a referral based on conscience.

Defending Conscience 

In July of 2007 the Stormans family, Margo, and Rhonda sued to prevent the implementation of the regulation. Because of the regulation, Margo was fired from her pharmacy, Rhonda was threatened with firing, and the Stormans family was placed under investigation and threatened with the loss of their pharmacy license.

In February of 2012, after a 12-day trial, a federal court ruled the regulation unconstitutional. The court explained: “The facts of this case lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Board’s rules discriminate intentionally and impinge Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion.”

The State appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and on July 23, 2015, the court ruled against the pharmacists’ right of conscience.

Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Alliance Defending Freedom, and leading scholar Michael McConnell, appealed to the Supreme Court on January 4, 2016 to hear their plea for religious freedom and their right to conscience.

On June 28, 2016 the Court declined to take up the case.

 

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Because of its religious beliefs, Ralph’s faced coordinated picketing and boycotts from pro-choice demonstrators; Governor Gregoire also joined the boycott.

Picketers lined both sides of the street at the entrance to Ralph’s, shouting at entering customers; Ralph’s was forced to hire a security guard to ensure customers’ safety.

Coordinated test shoppers were sent to Ralph’s Thriftway to demand emergency contraception. Once they were referred to one of the thirty pharmacies within five miles, they filed dozens of formal complaints with the State Board of Pharmacy.