by Chris Potts
How One Family Is Relying on Faith and Each Other in the Face of Government Persecution
He walks toward his grocery store, and Ken Stormans’ eyes get busy.
They take in everything. The young clerk selling fresh strawberries from the wooden stand out in front is down to his last few baskets. Not enough shopping carts available along the front wall. The woman in the green apron, arranging pots of flowers near the sliding doors, hasn’t posted the prices yet —she promises to have the sign up momentarily. A fluorescent light is out.
Walking in, he offers a warm, running commentary on the history of the place, but all the while his eyes sweep the crowded aisles and file their observations … prices on the displays … who’s working the shift … what needs restocking … the points where store traffic ebbs and flows.
Familiar customers nod or call his name. He pauses to answer a question, accept a word of encouragement. They know, here in Olympia, Washington, what Ken and his family have been going through these last nine years. Some of it, anyway.
Many are shopping here because they know … it’s why they drove another mile or two or five, past the big chain stores closer to home.
Ken smiles at his grandson, working one of the registers, and begins moving toward the back of the store. Inevitably, almost unconsciously, he slips into the habit of a lifetime. The one his grandchildren tease him about—but admit to emulating, now, in spite of themselves.
He pauses, every few feet, to adjust the goods on the shelves. Filling in gaps. Turning the cans and loaves and bottles face forward. Moving the older items up to the front. It’s a grocer’s habit, and he’s been doing it longer than most of those in this store have been alive.
It’s more than professional instinct— it is the essence of his life. He lives in a world whose culture has turned things around from so many of the truths he learned as a child. There are gaps, now, in people’s understanding of what’s important. And so many of the timeless moral values are being pushed out of sight. So Ken takes his time, doing what he’s always done. What his father taught him; what he, in turn, has taught his children and grandchildren. He adjusts, shifts, positions things correctly.
He knows that what’s on those shelves, and how everything’s presented, is important—to the store, and to those moving through it. Almost as important as what’s not on those shelves at all.
“Your spiritual life cannot be separate from your secular life.”
“I didn’t even know what Plan B was,” says Ken’s oldest son, Kevin, who became president of Stormans Inc. when his father retired in 2007. As president, he is ultimately responsible for everything sold in the two grocery stores owned by his family, but he is not intimately familiar with every product—particularly the medications sold in the pharmacy one store offers.
The “morning after” abortion pill “wasn’t even on my radar,” he says. “I got a call from a customer saying, ‘Why don’t you carry this product?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Let me call our pharmacist and find out.’” The pharmacist told him no one had asked for Plan B before, so they didn’t stock it. Kevin called the customer back.
“We can’t stock everything,” he explained, and so, like any pharmacy, “we stock a sample of what our patients need and want and ask for.” The customer acknowledged that, but something in her tone troubled Kevin, who began doing some research into what exactly Plan B was. “And I realized it was not a product that I could, in good conscience, sell, because it really stopped a fertilized egg from implanting—and when an egg’s fertilized, that’s a life.”
Kevin had no way of knowing that his moment of discovery and decision was a turning point for the family business, and the family itself. Or that it would precipitate nearly a decade of legal turmoil and political onslaught that would have them fighting for the survival of their stores and their legacy in a community they had served since Ken’s father, Ralph, founded the company in 1944.
Seventy-plus years of expansion, experimentation, and consolidation later, the company consists of two groceries that have long since become institutions in Olympia—Ralph’s Thriftway and Bayview Thriftway.
“We’re the only independent grocer left in Thurston County,” says Greg Stormans, Kevin’s brother, and a vice president and co-owner of the company. “We’ve been around a long time, and we’re known as a neighborhood kind of store. People like the way we do business.”
“It feels like a place where they’re comfortable,” says Charelle Foege, Kevin and Greg’s younger sister, and third coowner of the family company. “A place that’s familiar … where they know people, where they see the same faces.” Generations of families have shopped at the Stormans’ stores, and job applicants often say things like, “My grandma worked for you in 1952.”
“In the first six years, we had to reorganize the company five times.”
“We’ve grown up with a lot of people, and they view us as being part of the community,” Kevin says. “We want to give back and respect that, because we live here. We want to make it great, too.”
“My dad taught me [that] giving back to the community was a privilege, but it was also a responsibility,” says Ken, who—though retired—still visits the stores almost daily. “That’s how I learned, by his example.” Ralph’s philosophy, he says, was that “we couldn’t miss, as long as we kept our eyes, No. 1, on the Lord, and No. 2, on the focus of giving back. That’s the environment I grew up in.” And the environment he recreated for his own children, as they in turn grew up working in the store and gradually learning the ropes of the business.
Watching her father and grandfather, Charelle says, “gave a perspective on serving other people and focusing on other people … of being a business in a community where you employ people and provide the opportunity for them to provide for their families.”
“They just wanted to serve,” says Lynn Stormans, Ken’s wife of 60 years. “They never were in business to make money and to become a big supermarket, multi-store operation. Their hearts’ desire was always to provide a living for their family, take care of their employees, and pour whatever they could back into the community. And that’s the way we operate even today.”
“The importance of all those things starts to amplify itself when you get affirmation and approval from the community that you’re serving,” Ken says. And over the last 70 years, Olympia has looked to all three generations of Stormans for civic leadership as well as their butter and eggs. That communal trust has been built, Kevin says, not just on the family’s business success, but on their reputation as Christians who take their faith seriously.
“Our daily process of our business is really filtered through who we are as Christians. And so the decisions we make” he says, “whether from a business standpoint, an employee standpoint, a community engagement standpoint— products that we could carry, that we choose not to—it’s all part of that filter. It’s really not something that we think a lot about, because it’s just who we are.”
“Your spiritual life cannot be separate from your secular life,” Ken says. “And so you make the decision that your spiritual life is really going to be the regulatory agency in your life, and you measure everything against that.” Which made the decision not to sell the Plan B abortion pill pretty clear for Kevin and his siblings. But didn’t entirely prepare them for the consequences.
“I started getting more and more phone calls about the product and why didn’t we carry it,” Kevin says. “I made it clear that that was not a product we were going to carry, that we would refer them to another pharmacy.” More than 30 nearby pharmacies sell Plan B, and under Washington law pharmacists have always been free to refer patients to other stores for products they don’t stock themselves—whatever their reasons for not stocking.
What the Stormans didn’t realize was that the phone calls were no accident— their stores were being “testshopped” by abortion activists determined to force them to sell the Plan B pill. When it became clear that the Stormans wouldn’t do that, the activists unleashed their deluge.
They called for boycotts of the stores, and picketers flooded the groceries’ parking lots, blocking the main entrance, disrupting traffic, yelling and chanting. Local papers began running articles, including letters from state legislators denouncing the Stormans.
Olympia is the state capital, and some of those legislators left their offices to come down and join the protests. “We were really very concerned about physical violence happening, because of just the nature of the signs and the aggressiveness of the group,” Kevin says. The family hired security guards, but customers began avoiding the stores, and sales plummeted. It was the beginning of a nine-year ordeal.
“You have to accept the consequences of making the right decision,” Greg says. “And the consequences are, No. 1, you can’t hang on to all the money you would have had otherwise. You can’t hang on to job security … to being liked by everyone that works with you, or the people in your town. The consequences are having to struggle, financially and emotionally. It’s a tremendous burden for us as owners to make sure that we provide for people daily and weekly and each year.
“In the first six years, we had to reorganize the company five times,” he says. “We spent years just working through different business models that would keep us in business. It was extremely difficult on the staff … deferred bonuses, cuts in pay, significant reductions in hours all across the board, from the owners on down.” He and Charelle and Kevin even went back to checking out customers and bagging groceries for a while, during some of the more critical intervals.
To make things worse, the Stormans soon learned that the activists weren’t the only ones stalking them. The state’s highest official was personally helping paint a target on their backs.
“This wasn’t—and isn’t—just about the Stormans or access to Plan B,” says Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner, who has represented the family for close to a decade. "This is about a national pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda, with activist groups intent on forcing providers to violate their faith and participate in the taking of human life. In fact, no woman has ever been denied timely access to Plan B for religious reasons.”
“In every state, a pharmacist is permitted to refer a patient for all kinds of reasons—business, economic, convenience or religious,” Waggoner says. “That’s a standard national practice in pharmacies.” With one exception. “Washington allows pharmacies to refer for almost unlimited reasons,” she says. “But in practice, they single out and ban religiously motivated referrals.”
“Not since colonial America have we as a nation required someone to participate in the taking of innocent human life against their will.”
In 2005, the Washington director of Planned Parenthood met privately with her former co-worker, Christine Gregoire, then the new governor of the state, urging her to force pharmacists to dispense early abortifacient drugs —even if the drugs were readily accessible elsewhere, and even if dispensing them violated the healthcare provider’s conscience. The governor obliged, calling on the state’s Board of Pharmacy to adopt a rule that would ban religiously motivated referrals in practice.
To her dismay, the board unanimously passed a regulation that continued to permit referrals, a practice endorsed by major medical and pharmaceutical associations, including the American Pharmacists Association. So the governor called for a revote, this time threatening to remove board members, if necessary. She also urged Planned Parenthood to prepare the new regulation for the board’s consideration. The board buckled, but prior to the final vote, the governor replaced board members, anyway, with new members chosen by the pro-abortion groups.
Facing the first board investigation of a referral in 40 years, and the threat of losing their pharmacy license, the Stormans realized they had three choices: ignore their faith and sell Plan B, close their pharmacy—or file a lawsuit.
“The pharmacy is a significant piece of our business,” Kevin says. “It runs about 20 percent or so of the sales of that one store. If that pharmacy goes away, there’s a really good likelihood that the store doesn’t make it as well. And carrying the product wasn’t an option, so … it then became a business decision. ‘We’ve got to bring this into a lawsuit. This is what we have to do to stand up for our beliefs, and this is what we have to do to stand up for our company.’”
“We’re talking about our Constitution,” says Lynn, “about the freedoms that were guaranteed to us, first by God, then our country and our state. And we decided, ‘Yes, our country means enough to us, our God means enough to us, that we’re going to do this. We’re going to stand.’”
In 2007, ADF and its Allied Attorneys at Ellis, Li & McKinstry PLLC in Seattle filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Stormans and two Christian pharmacists, Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen. Early on, ADF secured a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the pharmacy board’s revised regulations, and secured a stipulation that its clients would be protected from prosecution and enforcement through trial. Planned Parenthood (who by then had intervened in the case on behalf of third parties) joined state officials in appealing the injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which reversed it.
In doing so, the 9th Circuit sent the case back down to trial court, where lawyers from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the Stormans’ team. A federal judge ruled the regulations unconstitutional, saying: “The facts of this case lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Board’s rules discriminate intentionally and impinge Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion.”
“The court’s decision specifically says they were targeting religiously motivated pharmacists and pharmacy owners,” Waggoner says. “The First Amendment prevents government from making value judgments that deem business and convenience referrals as more important and worthy of protection while religiously motivated referrals are not. The government can’t make that judgment.”
The Stormans’ opponents appealed that decision back to the 9th Circuit, which heard the case in late 2014. In July 2015, the court ruled against the Stormans and in support of the new state Board of Pharmacy regulations. ADF is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision.
“Not since colonial America have we as a nation required someone to participate in the taking of innocent human life against their will,” Waggoner says. “Washington’s law is an extreme outlier, but we will see activists propose more laws like this one if the courts do not protect the right of conscience here.”
Legally, the Stormans’ case has already had a far-reaching impact. Early on, the appeals court established that, as a closely held, family-owned corporation, Stormans Inc. enjoyed free exercise rights under the First Amendment—in other words, business owners have the same rights individuals have to speak and act in a way consistent with their religious beliefs. That precedent began laying the legal groundwork for ADF’s 2014 victory in the Conestoga Wood Specialties case at the U.S. Supreme Court.
On a personal level, though, the impact has been even more far-reaching, in ways the Stormans are still coming to terms with.
“It’s very difficult,” Kevin says. “It consumes our time, it’s emotionally draining. I don’t know why God placed us in this position. I don’t know what the end result’s going to be. But it’s clear we’re here for a purpose. I’ll just ride this ship and do the right thing and believe that God’s going to use that for His glory.”
“He gave us this responsibility to fulfill; He trusted us to do it,” says his mother, Lynn. “We’re honored to think He trusts us enough to handle this.” “If this [had] been an issue that resolved itself in a month, it wouldn’t [require] the same perseverance that it takes for an issue that may not resolve itself in 10 years,” says Charelle. “It demands a steadfastness. That’s been part of the uniqueness of the circumstances—it’s not been one person; it’s been a family, a family of people going through this journey, and a business of people, and a community of people, and so it’s allowed us to persevere.”
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing to have ADF come alongside us and support us in so many different ways,” Ken says. “It’s been very encouraging. It’s created an aura of hopefulness and the ability to be able to counter something that on our own we would never be able to do.”
“You know that the right thing is going to happen,” Greg says, “but you don’t get to decide what it is. We’re blessed to be in a position where we can take a position … and this happened. Not because we wanted it to, just because maybe, in some way, in important ways, other people will be encouraged to step forward and say, ‘I’ll do the right thing,’ in a culture that says, ‘You have to be politically correct. You can’t say that, you can’t do that, you can’t think that.’
“It’s important that we do stand up and say, ‘No, this is right.’ We can talk about the journey, the struggle, the difficult times, all the things that happened because of it. But at the end of the day, it’s still just the right thing to do. And what you’d want other people to do, in the same situation.”
The Stormans are a family known for their hospitality, and being around them, one soon suspects that there’s probably no one in Olympia who hasn’t taken supper at their table at least once. Lynn laughs to tell how many people, enjoying a juicy slice of meat or some particularly fresh fruit, ask, “Where did you buy it?”
She tells them, smiling at her husband. Ken always does the shopping, standing in line with the other customers to buy his small portion of all the food his family has purchased from growers and suppliers all over the country. “But how much do you pay?” some guests ask.
“Oh, we pay just as much as you do,” Lynn says. “Only we pay it twice.”