First Look

Supreme Court rejects religious objections to birth control sales

The US Supreme Court let stand a July 2015 lower court ruling that a Washington State statute should protect women's access to contraceptives. 

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    A window sticker on an Indianapolis florist in 2015 shows its objection to the Religious Freedom bill passed by the Indiana legislature. Washington State requires pharmacists to fill contraceptive prescriptions in a timely manner, even if the pharmacists have objections on religious grounds.
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Conservatives were disappointed and liberals were encouraged by the Supreme Court decision Tuesday to reject an appeal in a case involving the sale of emergency contraceptives and religious liberty. 

In effect, the high court let stand a July 2015 lower court ruling that a Washington State statute was OK to protect women's access to contraceptives. 

The Washington regulations were established in 2007 after some women claimed they had been denied time-sensitive emergency contraceptives (known as "Plan B"). The regulations require pharmacists to provide all prescriptions in a timely manner, and was put in place by the state's Board of Pharmacy after some women claimed they had been denied Plan B by pharmacists.

This case, known as Stormans Inc. v. Wiesman, was brought by a family owned grocery story pharmacy called Ralph's Thriftway and two pharmacists. Although the state law says that pharmacies must stock the contraceptive drug, it does allow individual pharmacists, who have religious objections to fulfilling certain prescriptions, to ask another pharmacist at the establishment to fill the prescription.

Ralph's Thriftway employees reportedly told those who request Plan B or other emergency contraception that the store does not stock the drugs and refers customers to pharmacies that do, reported The Washington Post

Tuesday's court decision was jeered by those who consider it a blow the interpretation of the First Amendment – the right of religious freedom – and cheered by those who saw it as reinforcing women's rights. 

"When a woman walks into a pharmacy," American Civil Liberties Union legal director Louise Melling told Reuters, "she should not fear being turned away because of the religious beliefs of the owner or the person behind the counter."

Yet many, including the three dissenting justices, Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that this decision is "ominous" for proponents of religious liberty.

"If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead," wrote Mr. Alito in his dissent, "those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern."

The court's decisions on gay marriage and birth control have prompted many religious groups to voice their concerns, particularly about their ability to live according to their faith.

Many Christians say that emergency contraceptives such as Plan B, which prevents sperm from implanting in an egg, is comparable to abortion. In this particular case, wrote Justice Alito in his dissent, there are more than 30 other pharmacies within a five-mile radius of the Ralph's Thriftway pharmacy that could have provided such a prescription.

"Americans should be free to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of unjust punishment," said Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer Kristen Waggoner, "and no one should be forced to participate in the taking of human life."

Some say that the high court's decision on this case, and on another recent contraception case, is significant for what it says about the state of the court. On several major cases this year, the current eight-member court (Justice Antonin Scalia's seat remains unfilled), has deadlock 4 to 4. 

In May, the court chose not to rule but took the unusual step of asking each side in a contraception case to reach a compromise solution, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The Supreme Court suggested changing how religious nonprofits opt out of providing contraception for employees.

Under Obamacare, the nonprofits had to send a note to their insurers saying they would not cover the cost of providing contraception. The insurer would then cover the cost of the contraception coverage. But the plaintiffs said the letter made them complicit in the act of providing contraception – even if the insurers alone paid for it.

The court's suggestion: What if nonprofits just made a blanket statement that they would not pay for contraception coverage? Then the insurer could step in to cover all such cases without involving the nonprofit. The plaintiffs agreed to the idea. 

While agreeing with the resolution, President Obama said at the time that the outcome may well have been different, had the court had a full complement of nine justices.

"My suspicion is that if we had nine Supreme Court justices instead of eight,"  Mr. Obama told Buzzfeed News, "there might have been a different outcome."

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