Stormans v. Wiesman

Becket Role:


Decision Date:
June 28, 2016
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Case Summary

Your job or your conscience: It’s a choice no American should have to make. But it’s a choice that led faithful family pharmacists all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Family behind the Pharmacy 

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over 60 years. Because of their beliefs, they cannot sell the morning-after or week-after pills—both of which can potentially cause an abortion.

Instead, when a customer asks for one of these drugs, the pharmacists refer them to one of over 30 pharmacies within a five-mile radius that willingly offer these drugs. This referral process is approved by the American Pharmacists Association and has long been legal in all 50 states.

Government Coercion 

But in 2005, abortion-rights activists rewrote the rules in Washington state. Although the state pharmacy commission had long supported the right of conscience, Governor Christine Gregoire opposed conscience rights. She publicly threatened to disband the commission, appointed several new members recommended by abortion rights activists, and asked those activists to write a new regulation. Buckling under pressure, the commission adopted a new regulation requiring pharmacies to sell the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs.

The new regulation allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of business, economic, and convenience reasons—such as a when a drug is unprofitable, attracts an undesirable clientele, or falls outside the pharmacy’s chosen business niche. But it forbids referral for one—and only one—reason: conscience. The commission adopted the regulation even though it admitted that no one in the state has ever been denied timely access to any drug because of a conscience-based referral.

Defending Conscience 

Because of the regulation, Margo was fired from her pharmacy, Rhonda was threatened with firing, and the Stormans family was placed under investigation and threatened with the loss of their pharmacy license. In July 2007, Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family sued to stop the regulation. In February 2012, after a 12-day trial, a federal court ruled the regulation unconstitutional. The court concluded that the commission’s rules intentionally discriminated against people of faith like Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans’.

The State appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in July 2015 ruled against the pharmacists’ right of conscience. Then came the Supreme Court appeal. Represented by Becket, Alliance Defending Freedom, and leading scholar Michael McConnell, the pharmacists needed the votes of four Justices to hear their case. Yet just weeks after they appealed, Justice Scalia died, leaving the Court short one member. Their appeal received three votes—one shy of what was needed.

Although the missing vote ended the case, the three dissenting Justices noted that the pharmacists can still challenge the discriminatory regulations again in the future, if the state attempts to punish them. Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family remain committed to their faith, and Becket remains ready to defend them.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
July 25, 2007
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington
Supreme Court Status:
Cert Denied
Practice Area(s):