Here’s What Actually Happens When You Fight for Conscience Rights
A family places its trust in God as it battles Washington state for the right to run their pharmacy and grocery store in line with Catholic teachings.
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Every morning, Greg Stormans contemplates a Bible verse perched in a tiny frame above his bathroom sink, which his daughter handwrote: “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
This verse sets the tone for his entire day and life.
“When I first heard this verse, even at a young age, it had an impact on me. It really changed my life and how I view it,” Stormans, one of the owners of Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympiatold CNA.
“Every day when I get up, I remember that the Lord has made it and that I should be happy and grateful. You have to share this and be happy, knowing that God has given you a purpose in life.”
Stormans and his family, who have been operating the small grocery story and pharmacy for the past four generations, had no idea they would be at the center of a firestorm in 2007, when the Washington Pharmacy Commission began to require pharmacies to dispense the potentially abortion-inducing drugs Plan B and ella, and make conscience-based referrals illegal.
Devout Catholics, the Stormans decided that they could not sell abortion-related drugs, because it was against their deepest convictions to sell drugs that “promote death.”
“We believe that life is precious and sacred, and that it begins at conception. We want to promote life and true health, not death or anything that goes against our religious beliefs,” Stormans said. “In good conscience, we could not sell these drugs.”
“My family and I look to God for strength as we try to practice loving our neighbor. This defines who we are,” he said. “We never thought that we would have to choose between living our faith and our family business, or that we would be embroiled in a legal battle. It is unfortunate but the commission left us no choice.”
Protracted Legal Battle
In July 2007, the Stormans filed a lawsuit against Washington state to stop enforcement of the newly passed regulations. The legal battle continues to this day.
In July 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to suspend the regulations. The 9th Circuit concluded that the rules are neutral and “rationally further the State’s interest in patient safety.”
The court rejected the business owners’ argument that the regulations were a substantial violation of their right to freely exercise their religion.
Earlier this year, the Stormans and the two other plaintiffs in the case, pharmacists Margo Thelen and Rhonda Mesler, filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will release its decision on whether it will hear the case as early as April 15.
Stormans said that he has never had any demand for these drugs at his pharmacy and that he and his family are committed to selling drugs that promote health.
“At our pharmacy, we vowed to provide healthcare – and that means not harming anyone,” he said. “We are in a business that is supposed to give life not terminate it. Plan B is specifically designed to kill a fetus. And that is something we refuse to participate in.”
Previously, Stormans would have been allowed to refer customers elsewhere if they requested Plan B or ella, both of which are widely available in Washington state, including at some 30 pharmacies within a five mile radius of Ralph’s Thriftway.
However, the new Washington law requires Stormans to offer the drugs himself, becoming the first state in the country to prohibit customer referrals for religious reasons.
Wrestling with God
Since the lawsuit began, Stormans said that his family has received numerous threats. In addition, their business saw a drop in sales by 30%, and as a result, they were forced to take a pay cut and reduce staff by 10%.
“I remember feeling the weight of the world, knowing that we would have to let go of some of our staff who are like family to us and who have been working for us for years,” Stormans said, holding back tears. “Some of these people said they did not know how they were going to pay their mortgage or their electricity bills. It was really difficult.”
“We also must have reorganized our business five different times to make up for the losses we suffered, but somehow we got through it and have been able to stay afloat,” he added.
Throughout this time, Stormans said he questioned God about the situation.
“I felt like Jacob wrestling against the Lord. At times I would be resentful and ask, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ ‘Why are we being picked on?,’ I had a great burden for the people who worked for me. These things affected me deeply. I resented the situation and it was making me the kind of person I didn’t want to be.”
But Stormans said that through prayer, he was able to obtain God’s peace.
“I started praying to God to lift this burden from me and He did,” the pharmacy owner said. “And after a while, I remember God telling me to put all of this at his feet – and literally, somehow the entire burden was lifted from me. I know God performed a miracle in my life in alleviating this suffering.”
“And since then, I have felt complete peace about the entire situation. I know everything is in God’s hands and I don’t worry. Greg is not in charge, God is, and it is great knowing that,” he said.
Show of Support
Recently, 14 briefs were filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Stormans and the two pharmacists. The briefs were signed by 43 members of Congress, 13 state attorneys the general, the American Pharmacists Association, and numerous other health care professionals and pharmacy associations.
Kristen Waggoner, who is lead counsel in the case and senior vice president of legal services with Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA that the overwhelming support for the Stormans and the pharmacists shows that their beliefs are not alone.
“People of faith are sometimes portrayed as being in the minority, but all the other 49 states and the American Pharmacists Association have no problem with laws protecting customer referrals for religious reasons,” she said.
“Washington state is pursuing an extreme position, not these clients who want to care for their customers and stand by their religious convictions,” Waggoner said. “Nearby pharmacies sell these drugs and the record shows that no woman has ever been denied timely access to Plan B.”
Waggoner also said she is confident in the outcome of the case. She said she thinks the U.S. Supreme Court will review the case and rule in favor of Stormans.
“I don’t see how a law this extreme can stand constitutional muster. It is simply unconstitutional,” she said.
What Will the Court Do?
Stormans agrees and thinks that ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm religious freedom.
“In America, we are blessed to practice our faith without persecution. We live in a great county where we can go to church and we are not persecuted like in so many other places in the world. This is the beauty of religious freedom,” he said.
“But right now, our religious freedom is being chipped away at and we can’t stand and let this happen,” he added. “The more the state can trample on our freedoms, the more difficult it will be to live our faith. The Constitution means something and I believe the court will uphold the freedoms we, as Americans, hold dear.”
Regardless of what happens next, Stormans said he is confident God has a plan.
“I come home every day thinking how much I love my life, my family and God,” he said. “God has given me these struggles to make me more like Him. He doesn’t put these things to cause us unnecessary pain but to make us grow.”
“I have grown tremendously throughout this process and know there is a reason for everything as Romans 8:28 affirms,” he said. “It’s all in God’s hands and that makes me happy.”