Ninth Circuit: no religious exception for state access-to-medicines regulations

Washington State regulations concerning the dispensing of medicine require timely delivery of medications. There's an exception if a provider has a religious objection, but that exception applies only where there's another pharmacist who can provide timely delivery. A pharmacy owner and two pharmacists challenged these regulations under the Equal Protection Clause and Free Exercise Clause (among other claims); essentially, their argument was that being required to provide medicines (such as Plan B) to which a pharmacist has a religious objection violates the pharmacist's religious freedom.

The district court agreed with the challengers, but last week an ideologically diverse panel of the Ninth Circuit unanimously reversed in Storman's Inc. v. Wiseman. In a forty-four-page decision, the court held that Washington's neutral and generally applicable regulations are rationally related to the state's interest in ensuring that "its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications" and therefore pass constitutional muster.

Judging by the host of amicus briefs filed on both sides (from religious groups, from health care groups, from non-profits, and from prominent legal academics interested in religious freedom issues including one former federal appellate judge), it's clear this case drew a lot of attention. The decision is an important victory for health care access. We can expect more religion-based challenges to health care laws in the future, however, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision last year in Hobby Lobby (for our coverage, see here) — which was based on a statute (the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act) that provides more robust rights than the constitutional clams at issue here. For one example addressed by the Third Circuit earlier this year, see here.

Last week's decision from the Ninth Circuit is here.

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