Pharmacists to Supreme Court: Protect our religious conscience 

Forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood, pharmacists seek relief 

For Immediate Release: January 4, 2016
Media Contact: Melinda Skea, media@becketfund.org, 202-349-7224

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A family-owned pharmacy and two female pharmacists asked the U.S. Supreme Court today to stop a new Washington State law that would force them to sell abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religious beliefs. The Washington law is the only one of its kind in the country and has been condemned by the American Pharmacists Association as “radical” and “grossly out of step with state regulatory practice.”

“No one should be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We are optimistic that the Supreme Court will step in and strike down this blatant discrimination against people of faith.”

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over seventy years. When a customer requests an abortion-inducing drug, they refer the customer to one of over thirty pharmacies within five miles that willingly sell the drugs. For decades, this has been standard pharmacy practice, has been approved by the American Pharmacists Association, and has been legal in all 50 states.

But in 2007, Washington adopted a new law making referrals for reasons of conscience illegal. The law was passed in a cloud of controversy, with then-Governor Christine Gregoire threatening to terminate the State Pharmacy Commission and replacing Commission members with new ones recommended by abortion-rights activists. The law leaves pharmacies free to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of reasons related to business, economics, and convenience—but not for reasons of conscience. Because of the law, Margo Thelen lost her job, Rhonda Mesler was threatened with losing hers, and the Stormans family faces the loss of its pharmacy license.

After a twelve-day trial, a federal court in February 2012 struck down the law as unconstitutional, finding “abundant evidence” that the law was designed to force religious pharmacists and pharmacy owners to violate their faith. But last July the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, upholding the law.

“It is absurd to force a pharmacy to sell drugs against their conscience when there are over thirty pharmacies within five miles that already sell the exact same drugs,” said Goodrich. “This law does nothing but punish people of faith.”

The Supreme Court will likely consider whether to take the appeal in March 2016. If the Court agrees to hear the case, it would be argued in late 2016. The plaintiffs are represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, together with Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket Fund attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketfund.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” 

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