Pharmacists have sued Washington state over a new regulation that requires them to sell emergency contraception, also known as the "morning-after pill."

In a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, a pharmacy owner and two pharmacists say the rule that took effect Thursday violates their civil rights by forcing them into choosing between "their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs."

"The stakes really couldn't be much higher," plaintiffs' attorney Kristen Waggoner said.

The state ruled earlier this year that druggists who believe emergency contraceptives are tantamount to abortion cannot stand in the way of a patient's right to the drugs.

The state's Roman Catholic bishops and other opponents predicted a court challenge after the rule was adopted, saying the state was wrongly forcing pharmacists to administer medical treatments they consider immoral.

Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who brokered a compromise on the contraceptive rule and pressured the state Board of Pharmacy to adopt it, stood behind the regulation Thursday.

"Gov. Gregoire feels the Pharmacy Board went through an extensive public process to come to their decision, and she supports them," spokesman Lars Erickson said.

The plaintiffs are pharmacists Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen, and Stormans Inc., the owners of Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, a grocery store that includes a pharmacy.

Under the new state rule, pharmacists with personal objections to a drug can opt out by getting a co-worker to fill an order. But that applies only if the patient is able to get the prescription in the same pharmacy visit.

Sold as Plan B, emergency contraception is a high dose of the drug found in many regular birth-control pills. It can lower the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

The federal Food and Drug Administration made the morning-after pill available without prescription to adults last year.