Federal judge strikes down Washington state's morning-after pill mandate

A federal judge in Washington state on Wednesday struck down state regulations requiring pharmacies to dispense the morning-after pill.

The regulations were adopted in 2007 by the State Board of Pharmacy under pressure from Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who opposed the board's earlier unanimous support for conscience protections. The plaintiffs - a family-owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists whose jobs were impacted by the regulation - filed suit following a series of board investigations.

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"The Board of Pharmacy's 2007 rules are not neutral, and they are not generally applicable," Judge Ronald B. Leighton wrote in his opinion. "They were designed instead to force religious objectors to dispense Plan B, and they sought to do so despite the fact that refusals to deliver for all sorts of secular reasons were permitted. The rules are unconstitutional as applied to Plaintiffs."

Leighton added that while the regulation does not apply to individual pharmacists, it impacts them by making them harder to employ since pharmacies must have at least one person on shift at all times who is willing to dispense the morning-after pills.

The decision comes as the Obama administration is sticking by its decision to guarantee access to contraceptives without co-pays for employees of religiously affiliated hospitals and universities. Abortion-rights opponents immediately claimed victory on Wednesday.

"Today's decision sends a very clear message: No individual can be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs," said Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represent the plaintiffs. "If the state allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for economic, business, and convenience reasons, it has to allow them to refer for reasons of conscience."

Judge Leighton was nominated to the court by President George W. Bush. He became a hero to many liberals in 2010 for ordering the reinstatement of a lesbian Air Force officer discharged under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The Washington regulations have been on the books since 2007. Similar regulations in Illinois were struck down last year.