Faith-Based Pharmacies?: Religious Right Backs Prescription Exemptions

Fundamentalist Christian pharmacists across the country are increasingly refusing to fill certain prescriptions, arguing they have a religious freedom right to avoid dispensing any medications that they believe fosters immorality.

Critics say the refusal to provide doctor-prescribed medicines unfairly holds average Americans hostage to the religious views of narrow-minded fundamentalists. Various Religious Right groups have jumped into the fray, backing the pharmacists.

A recent article in The Washington Post noted an increasing number of pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, citing religious objections for doing so. Others have refused to provide “morning after” pills or have insisted on delivering sermons to patients.

“This is a very big issue that’s just beginning to surface,” said Steven H. Aden of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, which defends the pharmacists. “More and more pharmacists are becoming aware of their right to conscientiously refuse to pass objectionable medications across the counter. We are on the very front edge of a wave that’s going to break not too far down the line.”

An Ohio-based group, dubbed Phar\xadma\xadcists for Life International (PFLI), also advocates refusing to fill prescriptions for people whose lifestyles offend fundamentalist religious proclivities. According to the group’s web site, www.pfli.org, it “is the only pharmacy association which is exclusively pro-life, something no other pharmacy organization can say (or would have the courage to say!).”

Karen L. Brauer, the group’s president, was fired from a pharmacy job at a K-Mart in Delhi, Ohio, after she refused to fill birth-control prescriptions.

“There are pharmacists who will only give birth-control pills to a woman if she’s married. There are pharmacists who mistakenly believe contraception is a form of abortion and refuse to prescribe it to anyone,” Adam Sonfield of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which tracks reproductive health-care issues, told The Post. “There are even cases of pharmacists holding prescriptions hos\xadtage, where they won’t even transfer it to another pharmacy when time is of the essence.”

The Religious Right clearly sees this as a cutting-edge issue. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has filed lawsuits on behalf of pharmacists who, citing their personal religious beliefs, refuse to fill certain types of prescriptions.

The ACLJ is also representing an Illinois emergency medical technician who was fired for refusing to drive a woman to an abortion clinic.

The Religious Right is pressuring states to pass legislation guaranteeing medical providers the right to refuse to engage in certain procedures. Illinois, for example, has a law that allows health-care professionals to refuse any medical procedure they find morally repugnant. Some observers say the statute would allow a fundamentalist nurse who believes AIDS is God’s punishment for gays to refuse treatment for HIV positive persons. At least nine other states are contemplating laws similar to the one in Illinois.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has responded by issuing an emergency order requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for contraceptives.

“No delays. No hassles. No lecture. Just fill the prescription,” Blagojevich said.

According to a study by the American Bar Association, exemption laws for pharmacists and other medical professionals have resulted in several troubling incidents. Cancer patients, pregnant women, patients near death and rape victims have all been harmed by such practices.

Reproductive rights advocates worry that a bill pending in Congress could make the situation worse if it passes. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act would require businesses to offer “reasonable accommodations” for the religious needs of employees. Interpreted broadly, the standard could be construed to cover pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth-control pills.

The bill was introduced in the Senate March 17 by an unlikely duo U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). It has also been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State supports the free exercise of religion. However, the organization believes this legislation goes too far and in a letter to Congress asked senators not to support it without substantial revisions.