WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court disposed of a case testing religious objections to contraception in May. On Tuesday, the justices refused to hear another one.
The justices said they will not review a Washington state rule requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions regardless of religious objections, while allowing exemptions for other reasons such as a patient's safety or ability to pay.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the refusal to hear the case. "If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern," Alito wrote.
The case was a commercial version of those that have come before the court in recent years from both nonprofit and for-profit employers seeking religious exemptions from a federal rule requiring most health insurance plans to include free coverage of contraceptives.
The court ruled in 2014 that closely-held companies such as Hobby Lobby did not have to offer forms of birth control to which they objected, but could pass the requirement on to their insurers. Then last month, the justices told the Obama administration and religious nonprofits who objected even to that level of involvement to work out their differences before federal appeals courts.
The new case, filed by the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, attempted to portray Washington's pharmacy rule as unique among the states. In all other instances, the group said, pharmacies as well as individual pharmacists can claim religious reasons for refusing to sell forms of contraception they equate with abortion.
The case dated back to 2007 and included a 12-day trial in federal district court, which ruled in favor of Stormans, Inc., the company doing business as Ralph's Thriftway. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed that decision.
"For over 40 years, Congress and all 50 states have protected the right of pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to step aside when asked to participate in what they consider to be an abortion," the pharmacy's petition seeking Supreme Court review said. "The decision below authorizes a dangerous intrusion on this right."
In an unusual move for a case that had yet to be granted by the Supreme Court, the challengers assembled 14 "friend of the court" briefs from supportive organizations, ranging from federal and state pharmacists' associations to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
State officials argued that the rule is applied neutrally because no one is singled out for exemption; examples such as patient safety and inability to pay are inferred but not spelled out. While individual pharmacists can step aside, the state said, an entire place of business cannot refuse to fill a legal prescription.
Moreover, the state said in court papers, the pharmacy's principal objection — having to dispense the emergency contraceptive Plan B — has become moot because it is now available over the counter.