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Religious freedom issues loom on 2016's horizon
The petition to the high court kicked off a new year where numerous clashes over religious freedom are expected to take place in courtrooms and legislative chambers throughout the nation. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
A family owned pharmacy and two pharmacists in Washington state petitioned the Supreme Court on Monday to hear their case against a state law that would require them to dispense abortion-inducing drugs against their religious beliefs, rather than refer those customers to another pharmacy.

The petition to the high court kicked off a new year where numerous clashes over religious freedom are expected to take place in courtrooms and legislative chambers throughout the nation.

For referring customers elsewhere to obtain an abortion-inducing drug, one of the pharmacists lost her job, another was threatened with losing hers and a family owned pharmacy could lose its license under a 2007 Washington state law, which makes referrals to nearby pharmacists for reasons of conscience illegal, according to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing them. In 2012, a federal court ruled the law unconstitutional, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in July 2015.

"No one should be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs," said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for The Becket Fund.

Another key legal and moral issue up for debate in 2016 is how faith-based organizations and religious groups will grapple with the Supreme Court's 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, The Washington Post reported on New Year's Eve.

"The fight over whether gay marriage should be legal ended in 2015. But the issue remains unresolved for conservative faith groups, leading to continuing battles between thousands of schools, nonprofits and houses of worship run by conservative faith groups and any gay and lesbian employees who may work for them," the article noted.

This conflict is expected to surface in some state legislatures, where politicians must decide between granting "discrimination protections to LGBT people or religious exemptions to nonprofits and businesses that object to gay marriage," the Associated Press reported in a rundown of the issues facing state lawmakers this year.

"There are 22 states with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 with laws limiting the government's ability to burden the free exercise of religion. But just four states Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and New Mexico have both," the AP reported.

If the high court agrees to hear the Washington pharmacy case, it would be the second this session where conscience rights have bumped up against health case regulations.

Concerns over what constitute appropriate protections for religious groups also underscore the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

In November, the Supreme Court announced it would review the ACA mandate that employers provide contraceptives through employee health plans. In a similar case in 2014, the court ruled that religiously affiliated corporations like Hobby Lobby could request accommodations allowing them to avoid directly providing birth control to employees.

Despite government efforts to accommodate faith-based nonprofits, dozens of schools, charities and other religiously affiliated organizations that oppose birth control on religious grounds sued the government, claiming that the mandate still makes them complicit in the government's process to provide contraceptives to their employees.

The justices will be looking at two appellate court rulings that differed over whether the contraception mandates violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits government from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion.

"The question is whether the government, acting in compliance with the act, can require religiously oriented nonprofits to allow their employees to get contraceptive care with their insurance, even if the employer doesn't provide or pay for it," The Atlantic reported.

The case is expected to be argued before the court in March, with a decision from the justices likely coming in June, CNN reported.
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