In a divided decision Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a devastating ruling against religious freedom.
The case involved Christian pharmacists in Washington state who were being forced to sell so-called "morning after pills," which the pharmacists consider abortion, a violation of their religious beliefs.
The difference between birth control pills and "morning after pills," with trade names like "Plan B" and "Ella," is that the former prevents the fertilization of an egg while the later destroys an embryo after conception has occurred.
The pharmacists had asked the high court to hear their appeal of a lower court ruling forcing them to provide the "morning after pill," despite their religious objections.
However, the court refused in a 5-3 ruling. Conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito dissented.
Alito said the Washington state regulation forcing pharmacists to hand-out "morning after pills" showed "hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the state."
He said the decision not to hear this case was "an ominous sign" for religious freedom everywhere.
"If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern," Alito wrote.
His warning alluded to the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly earlier this year. Scalia was a conservative, with deep convictions regarding religious freedom. If a Democrat president is elected, the highest court in the land could be tilted even further away from these freedoms.
The pharmacy appeal was brought by the Stormans, owners of a family drug store.
"We're there to sell life-saving drugs and drugs that are healing, but we're not going to sell any drug that is going to end a life or result in an abortion," Greg Stormans, vice president of Stormans Inc. contended.
However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the pharmacy must sell the product. The Supreme Court effectively agreed with that position by refusing to hear the appeal.
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the court's action.
"When a woman walks into a pharmacy, she should not fear being turned away because of the religious beliefs of the owner or the person behind the counter," Louise Melling, the group's deputy legal director, said.
Alito said it instead forces business owners to make a terrible choice.
"The dilemma this creates for the Stormans family and others like them is plain: Violate your sincerely held religious beliefs or get out of the pharmacy business," he said.
The Stormans offered to instead refer customers to nearby pharmacies that would sell it. But the appeals court said that was an unsatisfactory solution because it would take too long.
"Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception," that court said.
Kristen Waggoner, with Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian legal group representing the Stormans said, "Americans should be free to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of unjust punishment, and no one should be forced to participate in the taking of human life."