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Appeals court backs pharmacists

CHICAGO – An Illinois appeals court has ruled in favor of two pharmacists who objected to having to provide emergency contraception on religious grounds, setting a precedent their lawyer hopes will protect others from judicial or state sanctions.

In a seven-year legal campaign, Luke VanderBleek and Glenn Kosirog set out to shield their pharmacies from a 2005 executive order issued by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich requiring all pharmacists to fill prescriptions for the so-called morning-after pill.

In a lawsuit, they argued that they were protected by the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which says health professionals cannot be punished if they refuse to offer a service because of their conscientious convictions.

A circuit court originally dismissed their claim, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that a court must hear it.

Friday’s ruling affirmed an injunction granted by a lower court that found that state law “protects the pharmacists’ decisions not to dispense emergency contraceptives due to their conscience.”

The ruling by the 4th District Appellate Court applies only to the two pharmacists, the Chicago Tribune reported Saturday.

But their lawyer, Francis Manion, said it sets an important precedent.

“This is plenty, because the precedent that this will set in the state of Illinois means that the state is not going to go after a pharmacist that exercises conscientious objection when they know the court has ruled this way in this case,” Manion told the Tribune. “So we’re very happy with it.”

Manion is also senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a religious liberties law firm.

He said the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act “provides the broadest protections for the rights of conscience of health care professionals of any law in the country.”

“It strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of people to have access to medical care and ... the rights of people who object ... to being coerced into violating their conscience,” Manion said.

Emergency contraception contains a high dose of birth control pills and can be used to prevent pregnancy if taken within three days of unprotected sex by blocking ovulation or fertilization. Critics of the contraceptive say it is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.

Spokeswomen for Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, both defendants in the case, said they were reviewing the decision and had no comment.

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