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Pharmacies Face Off with Washington Over Drug Law

In summer 2006, a clerk at Ralph's Thriftway drugstore in Olympia, Wash., received a fateful phone call. A female customer asked if the store carried Plan B, an emergency contraceptive also known as the "morning after pill." The clerk called one of the owners of the pharmacy, Kevin Stormans, who said that they didn't have it in stock because customers hadn't asked for it.

After receiving a few similar calls, Stormans did some research to decide whether to start stocking Plan B. He decided that as a Protestant who believes life begins at conception, he couldn't sell the drug. He instructed pharmacists at the store to refer customers seeking the drug to one of the other 33 pharmacies within a five-mile radius of Ralph's. Soon, Ralph's was inundated with angry calls. Protestors from Planned Parenthood picketed the store and organized a boycott. The state pharmacy board investigated the store and its owners.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah because it regulated conduct rather than religious belief and was written in a manner that was neutral with regard to the religious motivation for the conduct. "Judge Tashima's dissent got it absolutely right," says Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, which advocates for policies that protect access to contraceptives. "The law is facially neutral, generally applicable and serves a legitimate purpose of ensuring patient access to lawful medication."

Employer Conflict
Beyond the debate about employees' free exercise rights, opponents of the Washington law say it presents a different legal problem for employers--a potential conflict with federal anti-discrimination laws. Title VII requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for employees' sincerely held religious beliefs insofar as such accommodations do not pose an undue hardship to the employer.

Adele Nicholas

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