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Federal Court To Rule On State's Prescription Rules

Ruby de Luna

A federal judge in Tacoma is scheduled to rule Wednesday on Washington's pharmacy regulations. KUOW's Ruby de Luna reports the main question before the court is whether the state's rules violate the religious rights of pharmacists.


In 2007 two pharmacists in Olympia and the pharmacy that employs them sued the state. They say the state's regulation on dispensing prescriptions infringes on their religious freedom.

The State Pharmacy Board adopted the rules after receiving complaints that some pharmacies and pharmacists refused to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraception known as Plan B. The rules require pharmacies and pharmacists to provide prescriptions in a timely manner. If a pharmacist has personal objections to the medication, state law allows the person to find somebody else to fill the prescription — that person has to work at the same pharmacy. The regulations in question apply to all medications, not just Plan B.

A federal district court judge will rule today whether the state's regulation infringes on the rights of the pharmacists. Stewart Jay teaches constitutional law at the University of Washington. He says the US Supreme Court has made clear that having a conscientious objection is not reason enough to exempt people from complying with the law.

Jay: "The Supreme Court has said that if a requirement of a law is neutral on its face with regard to religion, and otherwise has a justifiable purpose, then you have to obey it."

The state has argued that the regulation is neutral and is meant to insure that patients have access to drugs. This is critical in smaller communities where there may only be one pharmacy, and receiving medications in a timely fashion is crucial. The pharmacists argue they should be able to stock any drug that they choose. They point out that some pharmacies, for example, don't carry the painkiller oxycodone because of fear of theft.

But Stewart Jay says the law makes it clear that a medical provider's personal beliefs should not determine whether a patient receives medication.

Jay: "If you start down on that road and give pharmacists or any other medical provider the ability to impose their personal objections, then all kinds of discriminatory reasons would be possible, and ones that we'd be uncomfortable with, such as discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or their race."

Jay says it wouldn't surprise him if the judge strikes down the law. The judge has made remarks during the trial that indicate he would frame his opinion in a way that requires a higher court to make the final decision.

I'm Ruby de Luna, KUOW News.

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