The Supreme Court will not review Washington state’s requirement that pharmacies dispense emergency contraceptives to women, prompting a complaint from conservative justices that it was an “ominous sign” for religious liberty.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issued a sharp dissent Tuesday to the court’s decision not to review a lower court’s ruling upholding the regulations. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas.
Alito said that the case raised important First Amendment claims by religious pharmacists but that “this court does not deem the case worthy of our time. If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.”
It takes the votes of four members of the court to accept a case for full briefing and review.
In its last orders before taking a summer break, the court also declined to review lower-court decisions that blocked abortion restrictions in Wisconsin and Mississippi. And Alabama said it would not pursue its appeal of a decision striking down its law.
Those are natural outcomes of the court’s 5-to-3 ruling Monday that struck down similar Texas restrictions on abortion clinics.
The Supreme Court has been considering the Washington case for months, although apparently the wait was for Alito’s 15-page dissent.
Ralph’s Thriftway, a grocery store and pharmacy in Olympia, Wash., owned by a religious Christian family, brought the challenge. The family said it believes that life begins at conception and that “preventing the uterine implantation of a fertilized egg is tantamount to abortion,” Alito wrote. (There is disagreement about whether emergency contraception is an abortifacient.)
The pharmacy’s employees inform those who request Plan B or other emergency contraception that the store does not stock the drugs and refers customers to pharmacies that do.
But regulations issued in 2007 by the Washington State Board of Pharmacy require that all pharmacies stock the drugs. The regulations do not require an individual pharmacist to dispense the drugs but say stores must have on hand one pharmacist who will.
A district judge struck down the regulations, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overruled.
The state of Washington argued that its protections for individual pharmacists showed that it was sensitive to religious objectors. The board’s regulations “accommodate individual pharmacists’ beliefs while fulfilling its mission of ensuring that patients timely receive needed medicines; and second, to ensure timely access to all medications (not just emergency contraceptives),” its brief to the court said.
Alito saw it differently: The state’s “bottom line is clear: Washington would rather have no pharmacy than one that doesn’t toe the line on abortifacient emergency contraceptives.”
He said that the court should accept the case “to ensure that Washington’s novel and concededly unnecessary burden on religious objectors does not trample on fundamental rights.”
The case is Stormans Inc. v. Wiesman.