SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, April 6, 2011 ( – Illinois pharmacists who challenged a state rule that requires them to dispense “emergency” contraceptives have gained a victory for conscience rights.  The Seventh Judicial Circuit in Sangamon County, Illinois struck down the 6-year standing rule yesterday, holding that the rule violates conscience rights.

Originally instituted in 2005 by then-governor Rod Blagojevich, the administrative rule required pharmacists to distribute “emergency” contraception, known as “Plan B”, upon the request of a patient.  In 2010, the rule was expanded to include distribution of all drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with no exception for refusal on grounds of religious beliefs.

Pharmacists Luke Vander Bleek of Morrison and Glenn Kosirog of Wheaton challenged the ruling based on their moral convictions that life beings at conception and “emergency” contraception prevents implantation of a fertilized egg, thereby causing an early abortion.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz ruled on Tuesday in favor of Vander Bleek and Kosirog’s conscience rights, maintaining that they are protected by the Illinois Healthcare Right of Conscience Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Belz said, “The government asserts that this Rule serves a compelling interest in timely access to drugs. Yet the government concedes that it had never done anything to advance its asserted interest prior to April 2010. … Nor did the government provide any evidence that anyone was having difficulties finding willing sellers of over-the-counter Plan B, either at pharmacies or over the Internet.”

Both Vander Bleek, a Catholic, and Kosirog, a Christian, said other nearby pharmacies did distribute “Plan B” “emergency” contraceptives.

The state, Belz added, had agreed that the effect on the public seeking emergency contraceptives and unable to obtain them from the pro-life pharmacists “would be minimal.”  “Even as to emergency contraception, the Court heard no evidence of a single person who ever was unable to obtain emergency contraception because of a religious objection,” he wrote.

Senior Counsel Francis J. Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), who represented the pharmacists, applauded the judge’s ruling. “Today’s decision is a major victory for the rights of conscience,” said Manion, who has been working on the case for years since the rule was introduced in 2005.

“After six long years of litigation, our clients have finally prevailed against a state government determined to coerce them and all pro-life pharmacists into violating their deeply held religious beliefs or give up their livelihoods.  Judge Belz’s decision makes clear that both Illinois state law and the First Amendment will not permit this.”

“We’re thrilled,” said Mark Rienzi, a Catholic University law professor and associate lawyer to ACLJ in the case. “The law of Illinois and the law of the United States make it clear that people can enter the health-care profession without having to check their conscience or religion at the door.”

It is likely that that the Illinois attorney general’s office will appeal Belz’s ruling, which has not yet been applied to all Illinois pharmacies.