SEATTLE (Reuters) - The state of Washington can require a pharmacy to deliver medicine even if the pharmacy's owner has a religious objection, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday, the latest in a series of judgments on whether religious believers can opt out of providing services.
The ruling, from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, came in a case filed by pharmacists who objected to delivering emergency contraceptives. The 9th Circuit overturned a lower court that had said the rules were unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year allowed closely held corporations to seek exemptions from the Obamacare health law's contraception requirement.
In Washington, the state permits a religiously objecting individual pharmacist to deny medicine, as long as another pharmacist working at the location provides timely delivery. The rules require a pharmacy to deliver all medicine, even if the owner objects.
A unanimous three-judge 9th Circuit panel on Thursday decided that the rules are constitutional because they rationally further the state's interest in patient safety. Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception, the court said.
"The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs," wrote Judge Susan Graber.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, in a statement, called the decision a "major victory for the people of Washington."
"Decisions regarding medical care - including reproductive rights - are appropriately between a patient and his or her medical professionals," Ferguson said.
Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of Legal Services for the group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the pharmacists would appeal the ruling.
"No one should be forced to choose between their religious convictions and their family businesses and livelihoods, particularly when the state allows referrals for just about any other reason," Waggoner said in a statement.