'This law effectively targets religion'

The Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to Washington state regulations that require pharmacies to stock abortifacient drugs. As Justice Alito noted, “This case is an ominous sign.”

The Stormans family runs Ralph’s Thriftway, a local grocery store and pharmacy in Washington state. The family made a decision not to stock Plan B, a drug that can cause an early abortion. The Stormans are Christians who believe that life begins at conception, so they do not sell drugs that can terminate a human life. When a customer requests such a drug, the pharmacy refers the customer to one of 30 nearby pharmacies that sell the drug.

Yes, there are 30 pharmacies within a 5-mile radius of Ralph’s. Customers who wish to purchase Plan B can easily get it.  Access was never an issue for customers seeking the drug.

The Washington state policy gives exceptions for a host of secular reasons. For example, a pharmacy can refuse to stock a drug if the owner does not believe it will be profitable. A pharmacy can also decline a customer’s insurance. In fact, a pharmacy can turn away a customer because he or she uses Medicaid.

Archbishop William E. Lori

Supporters of the Washington regulations say that no one should be turned away from a pharmacy for being a woman. Indeed, but the Stormans did not turn anyone away for being a woman. And these same supporters of the policy appear to have no problem turning people away from a pharmacy for being poor.

If access is not an issue, and if the government is willing to grant exceptions for other reasons, then what purpose does Washington’s policy serve? Indeed, what makes this case so disturbing is that the regulations seem to be designed precisely to prevent conscience from playing a role in how pharmacists run their business. A pharmacist may refuse to stock or deliver a drug for secular reasons but not for moral or religious reasons. The law effectively targets religion.

The Supreme Court did not think that this case was worth its time. And the decision not to hear the case was released the same week that the court struck down a Texas law that sought to implement modest regulations designed to ensure that abortions performed in Texas would be safe for women. For example, one of the dispatched regulations was that an abortion facility be required to have an adequate fire detection system. Even after the horrors that came to light during the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, the Court’s ruling suggests that access to abortion cannot be fettered in any way, regardless of serious clinic safety issues.

When we look at these two actions of the Supreme Court together, a picture emerges, in which the dogmas of the sexual revolution trump all other rights, including the right to live in accordance with one’s faith. Abortion here is being treated as something sacrosanct, as if it is of such importance that the Court feels the need to give it special protection.

Another theme appears to be that religion, or even one’s moral view, cannot play a role in informing how one serves the public. One can make decisions based on the profit motive, for example, but not on the motive to serve in accordance with one’s faith. Do we really want a society where businesses are free to follow the desire to maximize profit, but not free to follow their consciences? Do we want a society where those who provide health care are expected to sacrifice their most cherished beliefs in order to serve the community? What about the pharmacist who refuses to stock a drug because testing it involves cruelty to animals? Or because it could be used by a state to inflict the death penalty?

There are many ways that conscience, faith and morals might inform how pharmacists and other business owners carry out their work. Zeal for the sexual revolution seems to threaten restrictions on conscience with implications far beyond abortion or contraception, moving us from a pluralistic society to one where government may coerce people into doing what they believe to be wrong.

The Stormans have served their community for over 60 years, but they will be forced to make an impossible choice: Comply with a law requiring them to dispense abortion-inducing drugs, or go out of business. No one is served by this law. No one is served when people of good will, of faith and integrity, are forced out of business. No one is served when conscience is excommunicated from public reason.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore is chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.