On Tuesday, the state of Illinois declined to appeal a recent loss in the Illinois Court of Appeals, which ruled in late September that the state cannot force pharmacists and pharmacies to stock and dispense abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religious beliefs.
The Illinois Attorney General’s decision marks the end of the state’s senseless, seven-year campaign against the religious objectors and their ability to operate their small businesses in accordance with their beliefs.
The case, Morr-Fitz v. Quinn, commenced in 2005 when then-Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) issued an “Emergency Rule” mandating that all pharmacies and pharmacists stock and fill prescriptions for drugs, including Plan B (“the morning-after pill”)—which can act as an abortifacient.
The rule appeared targeted directly at religious objectors. For example, at the time the mandate was issued, the governor argued that pharmacy owners and pharmacists should “find another profession” if their religious and moral convictions would not allow them to comply with the mandate, threatening them with significant penalties ranging from prosecution to steep fines to loss of professional licenses.
In 2011, after two pharmacists filed suit, a trial court enjoined the rule because it violated several laws, including the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. At trial, the state produced no evidence that a religious objection to stocking or dispensing the abortion-inducing drugs had prevented even a single person from gaining access to them. The government also admitted that pharmacies were permitted to refuse to sell drugs for a host of “common sense business reasons” but not for religious ones. Taking these factors together, the court concluded that the mandate was targeted at the religious objectors. Despite this resounding loss, the state appealed the trial court’s decision to the Illinois Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, noting that Illinois’s Health Care Rights of Conscience Act “prohibits discrimination in licensing” against a person or business that cannot provide health care services because of a religious objection.
Illinois is not the only state in which government officials have deliberately targeted religious objectors. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which successfully defended the small business owners in Morr-Fitz, is litigating a similar case in Washington State—Stormans v. Selecky.
In Stormans, the State Board of Pharmacy voted in favor of a regulation allowing pharmacists with religious objections to refrain from dispensing Plan B and refer patients to nearby suppliers. When Governor Christine Gregoire (D) learned of the protection, she publicly threatened to fire the board’s members, lobbied them to change the rule, replaced several members, and participated in a boycott of a family-owned pharmacy protected by the rule. Then the State’s Human Rights Commission suggested that board members could be held personally liable under gender discrimination laws if they supported the regulation.
The board buckled under this extreme pressure and adopted regulations requiring pharmacies to stock and dispense Plan B with no protection for the consciences of religious objectors. The regulations made it illegal to refer patients to neighboring pharmacies for reasons of conscience, even though patients could be referred elsewhere for a wide variety of business, economic, or convenience reasons.
As in Illinois, there is no evidence that anyone in Washington has ever been unable to obtain Plan B due to religious objections to dispensing it. A federal judge struck down the regulation, and the case is on appeal in the Ninth Circuit.
The Illinois and Washington pharmacists’ experiences show not just a lack of regard for religious freedom, but outright intolerance by those exercising the levers of state power against individuals trying to live out their faith in their day-to-day lives. Pharmacists should not be forced to choose between their livelihoods and their religious beliefs. The cases illustrate the danger to religious freedom posed by the growth and reach of the regulatory state at every level.