By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal filed by pharmacists in Washington state who objected on religious grounds to providing emergency contraceptives to women.
The justices, with three conservatives dissenting, left in place a July ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a state regulation that requires pharmacies to deliver all prescribed medicines in a timely manner.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a dissenting opinion saying the court's decision not to hear the case is "an ominous sign."
In Washington, the state permits a religiously objecting individual pharmacist to deny medicine, as long as another pharmacist working at the location provides timely delivery. The rules require a pharmacy to deliver all medicine, even if the owner objects.
The case is one of several around the United States in which people and businesses have sought to opt out of providing services that conflict with their religious faith.
Alito said there is evidence the regulation was adopted because of "hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the state."
The Supreme Court in 2014 allowed certain businesses to object on religious grounds to the Obamacare law's requirement that companies provide employees with insurance that pays for birth control. The court is currently weighing a similar objection from religiously affiliated nonprofits.
The appeals court said the rules rationally further the state's interest in patient safety. Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception, that court said.
The appeals court had overturned a lower court that had said the rules were unconstitutional. The regulation was challenged by family-owned Stormans Inc, which operates a pharmacy in a grocery store in Olympia. Two individual pharmacists who worked elsewhere also joined the lawsuit.
The objectors are Christians who associate so-called "morning after" emergency contraceptives with abortion.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)