A Fight for Religious Freedom

Posted by Matthew Archbold on 7/7/16 7:00 AM

Pharmacist with Religious Freedom
Image: Bolobilly.

Last week, the US Supreme Court decided not to take up a challenge to a Washington State law that makes it illegal for pharmacies to refuse to dispense medications for religious reasons. Pharmacists in Washington State had been seeking protection against the laws mandating they sell Plan B and other abortifacients in spite of religious objections.

How many other professions will soon become incompatible with Christianity as the aggressive secular culture marches on? The high court’s punt on this important issue leaves Washington State’s law, first implemented in 2007, in place.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito who, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and John Roberts, voted to hear the case, but were overruled by a 5-3 vote, called the court's action an "ominous sign." Ominous indeed.

"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," Alito wrote.

Some would point out that individual pharmacists with moral objections are still allowed to refer patients to another pharmacist. But these exceptions have little real-world application. A pharmacist in Washington can refuse to sell Plan B, but only so long as they refer the customer to another pharmacist at the same store.

Kristen Waggoner is the lead attorney for Stormans Inc., owner of Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, which filed the lawsuit, along with two other pharmacists. Wagonner works for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates for religious liberty. She points out that this exception is practically meaningless, though, as many pharmacists work alone. In short, the exception isn’t really an exception at all.

Mind you, this state law isn’t a response to any actual problem. It was only in 2006 that the federal Food and Drug Administration made the morning-after pill available without prescription to adults. Since then, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, not one woman has ever been denied the morning-after pill for religious reasons anywhere in the state. So this rule was passed not in response to any infringement of access or even inconvenience to any actual person, but specifically as an attack on religious liberty,

“As the trial court found, the government designed its law for the ‘primary—if not sole—purpose’ of targeting religious health care providers. We are disappointed that the high court didn’t take this case and uphold the trial court’s finding,” Waggoner said. “The state of Washington allows pharmacists to refer customers for just about any reason—except reasons of conscience. Singling out people of faith and denying them the same freedom to refer is a violation of federal law.”

A Frightening Precedent

Pharmacists can still refuse to carry a drug when it’s unprofitable or simply because they feel it’s outside the demands of the clientele they wish to attract. But, amazingly, not for religious reasons.

“All Americans should be free to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of unjust punishment, and no one should be forced to participate in the taking of human life,” said Waggoner. “We had hoped that the US Supreme Court would take this opportunity to reaffirm these long-held principles.”

I know what some are likely saying. It’s only one state. Aren’t you overreacting? But don’t think of it as Washington being the only state to specifically attack pharmacists with religious objections, think of it as the first state to attack pharmacists with religious objections.

The Supreme Court’s decision is effectively a starting gun for pro-abortion organizations to file lawsuits against pharmacists. The US Supreme Court has signaled that it will not stand in the way. In short, it’s open season on Christians’ consciences.

Click here to read "I'd Like to Say: Religious Freedom Is at Stake" by Helen Alvare.

From the beginning, this had all the earmarks of a witch hunt. Then Governor Christine Gregoire, with the support of abortion-rights groups, pushed for a change in the conscience laws. At the time, the Washington State Pharmacy Commission supported conscience rights.

What to do? An easy fix. Governor Gregoire simply replaced members on the commission who were for conscience rights with those who won the approval of abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood. The governor also publicly joined a boycott of Ralph’s. Soon enough, the new commission adopted regulations removing all conscience protections for pharmacists.

The new regulations had the desired effect almost immediately. “I was forced to leave a job I loved simply because of my deeply held religious convictions,” said Margo Thelen, according to The National Catholic Register.

Rhonda Mesler was also threatened with termination. And the Storman family, which owns Ralph’s, was threatened with the loss of their pharmacy license.

A Fight Worth Having

Now, in all stories like these, this is the moment when I am amazed at people’s faith. Thelen, Mesler, and the Stormans all could have acceded, like the vast majority of pharmacists in the state. They could have talked themselves into it or grumbled the whole way, but submitted. But their faith, in the end, was more important than their careers. They stood up for the sacredness of life when nobody else would. They stood up for their faith.

This kind of courage should inspire and humble us.

In 2007, Thelen, Mesler, and the Storman family filed a lawsuit. In 2012, the pharmacists won their case against Washington State, when a federal court ruled that the regulations “discriminate intentionally” and infringe on the pharmacists “fundamental right to free exercise of religion.”

The judge plainly stated, “A pharmacy is permitted to refuse to stock oxycodone because it fears robbery, but the same pharmacy cannot refuse to stock Plan B because it objects on religious grounds. … Both pharmacies refuse and refer, both refusals inhibit patient access, yet the secular refusal is permitted and the religious refusal is not.”

But their victory was short-lived. The state appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. And sadly, the court overturned the original ruling. Thelen, Mesler, and the Storman’s appealed to the US Supreme Court, but were sadly denied in a 5-3 decision, leaving he Ninth Circuit’s decision as the law in the state.

Religious Freedom
Image: Boris Thaser.

A Spiritual Aspect

Religious liberty is clearly imperiled in this country. I’ve read numerous articles proposing political responses to this problem or suggesting a presidential candidate who could “stack the court” with justices who respect religious liberty. In the end, I believe, this is a spiritual problem. A country that doesn’t take religion seriously will not take religious freedom seriously.

But as daunting as the struggle seems, there have always been those like the Stormans, Thelen, and Mesler, who stand up for their faith. They may not always win in court and they may be excoriated in the media, but the way of the cross was never supposed to be easy. We need to pray for them and people like them who persevere in their faith despite the terrible costs. We need to pray that more will stand up for the faith. And we must pray that when we face the hard choice over whether to submit or to suffer for the faith, we choose to kneel only to God.

Faith Under Fire by Matthew Archbold 

Topics: supreme court on religious freedom, Religious freedom, Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman