Pharmacy owners do not have a constitutional right to refuse to dispense medicines that they object to on religious grounds, according to a decision handed down Thursday by a federal appeals court. Had the plaintiffs in this case prevailed, it would have not only permitted them to refuse to fill many birth control prescriptions (which is what these particular plaintiffs hoped to achieve), but it could have also potentially enabled pharmacists to refuse to fill a long list of prescriptions, including “diabetic syringes, insulin, HIV-related medications, and Valium.”
Stormans v. Wiesman concerned a Washington state rule that permits individual pharmacists to refuse to fill a particular prescription “so long as another pharmacist working for the pharmacy provides timely delivery,” but does not generally allow the pharmacy itself to refuse to deliver a prescription “even if the owner of the pharmacy has a religious objection.” Intervenors in the case, who joined on the side of the state officials defending the rule, include an HIV-positive man and a woman with AIDS who feared that they would be denied “timely access to their prescription medications” if the court sided with these plaintiffs.
As a legal matter, this is an extraordinarily easy case. Although a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) expands religious liberty beyond the minimum requirements of the Constitution — this law formed the basis of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision — RFRA only applies to challenges to federal law. State law challenges, such as Stormans, are governed by a much less stringent constitutional standard, at least when those challenges are brought in federal court. Under this less stringent standard, the Supreme Court held in 1990, the Constitution “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).”
As a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explains, the Washington state rules are just such a neutral law of general applicability. Among other things, the court explains, “the rules’ delivery requirement applies to all objections to delivery that do not fall within an exemption, regardless” of whether that objection is rooted in religious faith or some other reason. A person who refuses to fill an anti-HIV prescription due to a religious objection to sexual activity that may cause someone to become infected with HIV is treated identically to someone with a purely secular objection to filling the same prescription.
Indeed, it is unlikely that this case would have gained much steam at all except for the fact that the plaintiffs drew a particularly sympathetic trial judge. Among other things, the trial judge implied that these plaintiffs had the right to refuse to fill certain prescriptions for contraception “premised on the right ‘to refrain from taking human life.’”