A federal district court judge has ruled that religious pharmacists and pharmacies can deny access to legally prescribed medication (in this case, emergency contraception, which prevents pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse) if they object to the prescription on moral or religious grounds.

The case, which has been in courts since 2007, stems from a state pharmacy board rule stipulating that pharmacists are required to provide legally prescribed and available medications "without discrimination or delay." The day before the rule was supposed to take effect, two pharmacists and a pharmacy challenged the rule in court, arguing that requiring them to fill EC violates their freedom of religion. The Ninth Circuit District Court has twice upheld the rules, finding in 2009, for example, that "the new rules do not aim to suppress, target, or single out in any way the practice of religion."

Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest plan to appeal today's ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

"This ruling adds another brick in the ever-growing wall between women and their health care," Legal Voice executive director Lisa Stone said today. "What’s more, it ignores well-established legal principles long ago articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

"The purpose of the Board of Pharmacy rule is to ensure safe and timely access to lawful and lawfully prescribed medications, with particular concern about time sensitive medications," Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. "I remain concerned about the impacts on patients if pharmacies are allowed to refuse to dispense lawfully prescribed or lawful medications to patients."

The ruling, if it stands, has implications beyond mere inconvenience---a woman having to go to the nonreligious pharmacy across the street. Because emergency contraception works best within 72 hours, women with few available pharmacy options (say, women in rural areas) may have to travel long distances or wait dangerously long times to fill their prescriptions.

Additionally, the ruling effectively allows pharmacists (or pharmacy owners) to deny legally prescribed medication on any "moral" or "religious" grounds.

And therein lies the slippery slope. If pharmacists can deny a woman emergency contraception because it violates their religious views, what's to stop a pharmacist from refusing to provide fertility treatments to a lesbian couple; refusing to provide postnatal drugs to an unmarried woman; or refusing to provide birth control to an interracial couple? What's to stop them, for that matter, from refusing to provide vaccinations because they believe children should rely on their God-given immune systems to keep them well?

Religious beliefs shouldn't provide a blanket exemption to pharmacists' duty to do their job---which, as they were surely informed when they chose that career path, includes dispensing medications prescribed by doctors.

To read our ongoing coverage of this case, start here.