Politics & Government

Hobby Lobby ruling won’t alter course on Plan B contraceptives fight at Olympia pharmacy

The Washington Pharmacy Commission’s ongoing legal case against an Olympia pharmacy owner for refusing to stock and dispense emergency contraceptives is not affected by Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office said in a statement.

Kevin Stormans, whose family owns Ralph’s Thriftway and its pharmacy on Olympia’s east side, has refused to stock the morning after pill known as Plan B and other emergency contraceptives. The pill is a high-dosage contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy and is best used within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, according to Planned Parenthood’s guidance.

The Hobby Lobby case dealt with the owners’ refusal to buy health insurance for employees that had contraceptives coverage, which is mandated under the Affordable Care Act. Both have argued a First Amendment right of free speech, which the high court did not use to decide the ACA case.

“The U.S. Supreme Court decided the Hobby Lobby case based on a federal law that applies only to the federal government, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” the AG’s statement said.

“RFRA is not at issue in either the Stormans case (involving a pharmacy owner's challenge to Pharmacy Commission rules requiring pharmacies to stock and dispense all time-sensitive medications needed by their patients), or the Arlene's Flowers case (involving a florist's refusal to serve a same-sex couple for their wedding). Those cases both involve only state laws and regulations, not federal laws. Thus, today's decision should have no impact on those cases,” the statement continued.

“As to the Arlene's Flowers case, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that its ruling created no religious exception to anti-discrimination laws. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal under Washington law, and the Hobby Lobby decision does nothing to change that or create exceptions to it,” the statement added.

Kristen Waggoner, an attorney for the Stormans, welcomed the decision but declined to say what help the ruling might give their case. Stormans‘ lawsuit was put on hold in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco awaiting resolution of the joined cases from Hobby Lobby Stores of Oklahoma and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania.

“Like the Stormans, the Green and Hahn families [in the decided federal case) asked the court to protect them from being forced to participate in distributing potentially life terminating drugs,” Waggoner said in response to a reporter’s query. “We are reviewing how today's Supreme Court decision applies to the Stormans, but we are grateful that the Court has upheld the right of these family businesses to live out their faith without fear of government punishment.”

Ferguson’s office said the Ninth Circuit issued a recent order asking parties in Stormans v. Wiesman “to file supplemental briefs ‘on the effect, if any, of Burwsell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.’ ” Briefs are due within 28 days.

Stormans sued regulators in 2007 to stop an enforcement action by the state Pharmacy Commission, which requires that pharmacies stock and dispense medications that, in effect, are needed by customers.

The Stormans family won at trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in February 2012, but the commission and state Department of Health appealed that decision, which had included an award of legal fees in excess of $2 million that the state would have to pay if it ultimately loses.

Although Stormans asserted a legal right to exercise religious conscience in not following the state law, state regulators say it is really a matter of furnishing legal medications.

“This case for the state has never been about Plan B alone. From our perspective and from the rule the (commission) adopted, it was with respect to all legally prescribed drugs,” Joyce Roper, a senior attorney with the AG who represents both agencies, said in January. “The concern is a free exercise claim would allow a pharmacy owner to decide they are not going to provide medications needed by patients based on the pharmacy owner’s beliefs when it may be necessary for the patient.”

District Court Judge Ronald Leighton had found the state was singling out religious objectors for failing to dispense medications.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688