It was a great way to start Lent. On Ash Wednesday, in an eagerly anticipated case, a federal judge in Washington State issued a ruling that strongly affirmed the centrality of the rights of conscience and religious exercise.

The court ruled that Christian pharmacists could not be required to stock and dispense medication that violated their religious beliefs. In sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s recent efforts to mandate that Catholics and other religious believers act contrary to Church teachings, the court in Washington recognized that such actions violate religious liberty. Moreover, the court examined, in detail, the troubling reasons for the state regulations and the anti-religious bigotry that justified them.

Washington had never forced pharmacists to stock any particular drug until its Board of Pharmacy passed rules designed to force pharmacists to provide Plan B and other drugs, without permitting pharmacists to refuse for reasons of conscience (although they could refuse for secular reasons). As the court recognized, this was no accident: “The board’s regulations have been aimed at Plan B and conscientious objectors from their inception.”

Indeed, the court found “reams” of evidence “demonstrating that the predominant purpose of the rule was to stamp out the right to refuse.” Certain Christian pharmacists refused to carry the drugs on religious grounds and sued to overturn the regulations.

Most shockingly, although an individual conscience exemption was proposed, Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington threatened to replace the entire Board of Pharmacy unless that exemption was taken out, which it was.

What is also clear was the close involvement of interested lobbying groups, such as Planned Parenthood, in the regulations’ drafting and strategy.

Some may assume that this example in Washington is an isolated instance, but related cases in California and New York have demonstrated similarly that such laws putatively designed to further “health” or “equality” have more nefarious purposes of coercing Christians and other believers. Such laws have attempted, sometimes successfully, to exclude them from the provision of services they have engaged in, such as adoption agencies and hospitals, literally for centuries.

The full and open process that a trial can at its best achieve was put to good use in Stormans. The ugly truth all came out, including that the regulations were essentiality written and approved by groups opposed to religious objectors.

Steven Saxe, the executive director of the pharmacy board, clearly testified that the intent of the regulations was to eliminate conscientious objections. The court forcefully notes that Washington was unable to present any evidence that anyone was denied drugs they needed as a result of religious objections or the phantom concern over “bigotry.” The court’s decision, in fact, reveals that it is the state and its allies who are the bigots here, in targeting religious believers.

The court zeroed in on the motivations of the state and its supporters in a crucial paragraph:

The state [has] dismissed plaintiffs’ religious beliefs about the implications of dispensing emergency contraceptives as unworthy of the same sorts of protections they would, presumably, freely recognize in another context. Indeed, they view the decision that confronts people of faith as minor, even quaint, burdens on religious practices … [and] argue that plaintiffs’ sincere belief about an issue at the core of their religion is not entitled to constitutional protection, but is instead granted (or not) as a matter of legislative grace.

This is strong language from a federal court, casting into doubt the very reasons the state proposed the regulations in the first place. And the trial confirmed believers’ worst suspicions: The state produced no evidence that there was any reason for the regulations other than to force religious believers to dispense drugs over their religious objections.

There has rarely been a religious-liberty case so clearly marked by prejudice, and the court did a great service by holding a trial showing how seemingly innocuous regulations are in fact motivated by real bigotry.

According to the court, the intended outcome of the regulations was “religious gerrymandering,” designed to make the laws appear neutral, but with the operative effect of harming religious exercise. The existing regulations allowed pharmacies not to stock drugs for a variety of secular reasons, but the state could not explain why, therefore, pharmacists should be barred from refusing to stock drugs on religious grounds.

In this case, the state’s action reflects a widerspread secular position, held as well by those in the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Such a position simply does not take religious belief, and the actions that are required by such beliefs, seriously. On this view, religious people can have their faith, but as something of a hobby, best kept out of sight and not in any way involved with matters of public policy or our common life.

That may be their view, but the Constitution places religious liberty as the first freedom. Further, this stance does not comport with more than two centuries of religious pluralism in this country. And, needless to say, this position is contrary to the Church’s teaching, which enjoins us to be witnesses to our faith in the public square.

The decision in Stormans is clear and well-reasoned. Let us hope that it deals a killing blow to the HHS Department’s similar “mandate” — and for similar reasons.

The state cannot force people to act against their religious beliefs or prohibit religious believers from living according to them.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (