By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state health officials asked an appeals court on Wednesday to reinstate a rule requiring that pharmacists dispense emergency contraceptives even when doing so violates their religious beliefs.
District Judge Ronald Leighton blocked the regulation last month, finding it trampled on the pharmacists' right to "conscientious objection" in violation of the Constitution.
Leighton's ruling in a case brought by a drugstore owner and two of his pharmacists in the state capital, Olympia, comes amid a national political debate over a federal policy mandating free coverage for women's contraceptives through employer-sponsored health plans.
Several universities with religious affiliations have sued to block that regulation, using arguments similar to those that prevailed in the pharmacy case -- namely that the government has no right to compel individuals to violate sincerely held religious beliefs.
But the state's Department of Health and Board of Pharmacy asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the trial court's determination that the requirement targets religious opposition to certain medications.
"This isn't about religious objections," health department spokesman Tim Church said. "This rule is meant to ensure that people have access to time-sensitive medications."
The morning-after pill, available under the brands Plan B One-Step, ella and Next Choice, can be taken up to 5 days after unprotected sex, but is most effective when taken within the first 72 hours.
State officials said that particularly in rural areas of eastern Washington, where pharmacies may be more than 20 miles apart, a patient denied service by one pharmacist would not be able to go elsewhere for the medication in time.
GOVERNOR WEIGHS IN
The case stems from a rule adopted by the Washington State Pharmacy Board in 2007 requiring pharmacies to stock and dispense legal medications for which there is a demonstrated community need.
The drugstore owner and two pharmacists who brought the lawsuit said they believed that emergency contraceptives were tantamount to abortion because they could theoretically stop an already-fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
As conservative Christians, they refused to dispense the medication, then sued to block the regulation.
After a 12-day trial, the court found overwhelming evidence that the regulations allow pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for all sorts of business, economic, and convenience reasons, but not for reasons of conscience.
"The Constitution does not allow the state to single out religious conduct for unfavorable treatment," said Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which served as co-counsel for the pharmacists.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat in her last year of office, issued a statement supporting the appeal.
"Any decision that puts patients at risk by delaying or denying them lawful and lawfully prescribed medications should be carefully reviewed by a higher court," she said.
Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest also plans to join in the state's appeal of Leighton's verdict.
"We really feel that this could set a dangerous precedent and allow other health care providers to refuse to dispense emergency contraception or any other drug they personally disagree with," said Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.
Last spring, a state judge in Illinois struck down a similar law requiring pharmacies to dispense emergency contraception.
A handful of other states, including California, New Jersey and Wisconsin, have laws requiring pharmacies to fill all valid prescriptions, but loopholes allow pharmacists with moral objections to refer the patient to another drugstore.
Six states explicitly allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives, and several more have broad right-to-conscience laws that provide some protection to pharmacists as well as to other health care professionals.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)