By James Tillman

OLYMPIA, Washington, July 12, 2010 (—Attorneys for the State of Washington have told a federal judge that the state Pharmacy Board will seek to create new rules to protect the consciences of pharmacists who do not wish to stock and dispense the abortifacient Plan B.

The about-face comes less than two weeks before the scheduled July 26, 2010 trial for a suit alleging that Washington State had violated the constitutional right to free exercise of religion by requiring pharmacists to dispense Plan B, no matter what their religious beliefs might be.

But this is not the first reversal this conflict has seen. In 2006 the State Board of Pharmacy had unanimously supported a rule protecting the consciences of pharmacists and pharmacy owners by permitting them to refrain from dispensing Plan B and to refer patients to nearby suppliers.

When the pro-abortion Gov. Christine Gregoire heard of the board’s decision, however, she began to put them under pressure.

She publicly threatened to fire the board’s members and called them late at night to lobby them. The State’s Human Rights Commission even hinted that board members could be held personally liable under gender discrimination laws for supporting the rule.

Under such pressure, the Pharmacy Board decided to force pharmacies to stock and to dispense Plan B, although they admitted that they could find no case in which anyone had been unable to obtain Plan B because of religious objections.

Because of their decision, pharmacists Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen, accompanied by the owner of Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, filed a lawsuit in federal court in July 2007. Their suit stated that they were being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their religious beliefs.

The plaintiffs and defendants in the trial have currently agreed to postpone the trial while the Board of Pharmacy works on rules that would permit pharmacies to refuse to dispense Plan B so long as they offered referrals.

“This sends a clear signal to Governor Christine Gregoire,” said Eric Rassbach, National Director of Litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“It may come as a surprise to her, but conscientious and principled people like the owners and pharmacists of Ralph’s Thriftway are the backbone of this country.”

The U.S. Food and Drug administration approved Plan B as a nonprescription contraceptive drug in 2006. The drug, however, can also prevent already-fertilized eggs from implanting on the lining of the uterus, thereby acting as an abortifacient.

Other states have seen similar battles as pro-abortion advocates have tried to require pro-life pharmacists to dispense the drug.

Said Elaine Rose, CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! Washington: “We are shocked the Board of Pharmacy is re-opening the rule and jeopardizing hard-fought rights for women seeking essential health care.”

Others pointed out, however, that in the so-called conflict between “women’s rights” and religious liberty was uneven.

“Isn’t it a greater oppression to ask one to betray deeply held beliefs than walk a few extra blocks [to another pharmacy]?” asked pharmacist Cristina Alarcon.

“Americans should not be forced out of their professions solely because of their religious beliefs – but that is exactly what Washington State sought to do,” said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at The Becket Fund.

“The government should accommodate and protect the fundamental rights of all members of the medical profession, not punish some members because of their religious beliefs.”

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