Whose Conscience Counts?

Religious Right Forces Want Pharmacists’ ‘Rights’ To Trump Those Of Patients, As A National Battle Erupts Over Religion In The Workplace

When Janet Blanding first heard that her local pharmacy was refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, she took it personally. 


At 45, she had little to no need for the morning-after pill, also known as “Plan B.” But as the mother of a teenage girl, she wanted to make sure her daughter would never be shamed and turned away by a pharmacy.


“I see emergency contraception as virtually eliminating the need for abortion,” she said. “It can really eliminate a lot of heartache for women. I want my daughter to have access to that.


“When I first heard about this, I envisioned my daughter or one of her teenage friends being in a difficult situation and needing to have access,” she continued. “Ralph’s is the only pharmacy within walking distance for a huge number of homes. I just kept picturing young girls being desperate and unable to get the help they needed.”


That was back in 2006, and over the next few months, Blanding became deeply involved in battling the policy at Ralph’s Thriftway. It is a family-run grocery store in Olympia, Wash., and owner Kevin Stormans made it clear that as a Christian, he chose to not stock the drug at his pharmacy based on religious and moral grounds. He claimed it violated his conscience because his personal research led him to believe that “Plan B” was an “abortion-inducing” drug.


Said Blanding, “They would not sit down with us to come to any sort of resolution. A University of Washington professor of pharmacology even tried to contact Stormans to explain how emergency contraception works. But they have the walls up. They do not want to be bothered with the facts. They have their faith.”


Despite several women complaining to the Washington State Board of Pharmacy, an organized protest outside the store and a boycott, Ralph’s Thriftway continued to refuse filling the prescriptions.


“They are slightly fanatical,” Blanding said. “They are not ordinary business people. They are willing to lose money to serve their ideological purposes.”


But it’s not just the Stormans family seeking a special privilege to push their religious beliefs on others. The Religious Right is behind a movement to give employees and health-care service providers a legal exemption from doing their jobs because they claim it violates their “conscience.”


“As Christians, when we open the door of our workplace, we should not be forced to set our morals and convictions aside,” wrote Alan Sears, president and general counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group. “Nor should government bureaucrats be allowed to dictate what we believe, mandating behavior that violates our conscience and faith principles.” 


Federal civil rights laws already require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious observances and practices in the workplace. But several right-wing groups continue to lobby our government to protect employees’ “religious freedom” in the workplace, even if it violates the civil rights of others. 


Thanks to Religious Right agitation, women across the country have been turned away by pharmacists at crucial times. The National Women’s LawCenter has recorded multiple instances from as far back as 2004, including one in which a rape survivor was turned away from an Eckerd Pharmacy by three pharmacists, all of whom refused to fill the prescriptions due to religious beliefs.


A friend of the victim said the pharmacists’ refusals to fill the prescription amounted to a second victimization.


These pharmacists eventually were found to have violated Eckerd’s policy that states no pharmacist can decline to fill a prescription based solely on moral or religious grounds and were fired.


But in recent years, Congress has debated “conscience” proposals that would force employers to accept this type of behavior from their employees, all in the name of religious liberty.


For example, Religious Right groups want to enact an overly broad version of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) to allow employees to claim their religious beliefs prevent them from complying with their employers’ anti-discrimination policies.


Under the Religious Right’s proposed legislation, not only could pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions when it violates their “conscience,” but those in other professions could act in ways that harm other people.


For example:


a police officer could refuse to protect a medical clinic because it conflicts with his religious beliefs;


a nurse at a public hospital would be free to lecture an AIDS patient and his partner that God “doesn’t like the homosexual lifestyle” and they must pray for salvation;


a city bus driver could decline to drive a bus that displays an atheist advertisement because it offends her as an evangelical Christian;


an on-staff counselor can refuse to counsel unmarried or gay and lesbian employees on relationship issues.


Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other civil rights and civil liberties groups are deeply concerned about the potential negative effects.


“Under an overly broad WRFA, employees could claim a right to preach in the workplace, and it would be very difficult to protect co-workers, patients, clients, customers and others from religious harassment or proselytization,” said Aaron Schuham, director of legislative affairs for Americans United. “What’s more, an employee could request to not work with someone who is a member of the ‘wrong’ religion, an atheist or someone who is openly gay if it violates the employee’s ‘religious beliefs.’”


Schuham and AU’s Legislative Affairs Department have been battling this overly broad version of WRFA for years. So far, the measure has stalled in Congress, and advocates have not introduced a new version this session. AU argues that this form of WRFA, that protects one person’s conscience at the expense of others, violates the Constitution and conflicts with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


But the Religious Right’s crusade doesn’t just stop at WRFA.


As soon as the debate over health-care reform got under way, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) began pushing for amendments that would grant health-care providers, including physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies, a virtually absolute right to claim religious exemptions and refuse to perform their duties.


Coburn’s amendments have failed to garner enough support so far, but opponents are keeping a close eye on his maneuvers.


And just before President George W. Bush left office, his administration proposed dangerous regulations granting health-care workers sweeping rights to follow their consciences at the expense of patient care.


Americans United protested the new rule in comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But the Bush administration enacted it anyway.


President Barack Obama has rescinded the Bush regulations, but it’s unknown what he will issue in their place. In his Sept. 10 speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama said “federal conscience laws will remain in place” in his proposed health-care reform.


Action is also under way in the state legislatures.


States across the country are considering laws to give health-care providers the right to impose their religious beliefs on others. In 2008, 10 states considered 13 anti-choice measures that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for all forms of contraception.


These states include: Alabama, Hawaii, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont.


But several other states have recognized the danger in allowing pharmacists to push their religious agenda while denying women access to medical care. Twelve states in 2008 considered a variety of measures that would guarantee women’s access to prescriptions.


The Washington State Board of Pharmacy did so as well. After Blanding and dozens of women in Olympia stood up for their right to access “Plan B,” the Board in July 2007 issued regulations that prohibited any pharmacy from refusing to fill a prescription based on moral or religious grounds. The regulations allowed for individual pharmacists to refuse to fill the prescriptions on those grounds, so long as another pharmacist at the pharmacy could do so.


“I went down to a pharmacy board meeting and said how I had been refused at Ralph’s,” Blanding said. “I think at that time there was a perception that there wasn’t a problem with refusals in the state.


“But I told them that I knew two women who had to go to four pharmacies before they could get their prescriptions filled,” she continued. “I’ve had many women come to me and tell me their stories. People are reluctant to come forward because there is a possibility that their sexual behavior will be dissected in public.”


Before the regulations went into effect, the ADF stepped in to represent Stormans and two pharmacists and challenge the Board’s new policy in federal court.


“The so-called morning-after pill is widely accessible in this state,” said ADF-allied attorney Kristen Waggoner who worked on the case.


Arguing that there is no reason for “government coercion of Christian pharmacists,” she claimed “the handful of health-care providers who have a strong moral objection to participating in taking innocent human life should be allowed to refer customers elsewhere. Under the new rules, their rights are not respected and they may lose their jobs.”


But Blanding recalled that the pharmacist who denied her prescription at Ralph’s back in 2006 was genuinely sorry and embarrassed for not being able to honor the prescription.


“He told all of us that he disagreed with the owner’s policy, and he was sorry he couldn’t give us emergency contraception,” she said. “The owners of Ralph’s weren’t letting the pharmacists do what they think is appropriate. The owners were the ones not allowing the pharmacists to exercise their own consciences so this is not really about ‘freedom of conscience.’”


After Stormans, Inc. v. Selecky was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the Board’s policy. The appellate court ruled in July that the lower court was wrong when it blocked the regulation from going into effect.


The case was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings but the appellate panel strongly suggested that the Washington state regulations are constitutional and in the best interest of the patients.


The appellate judges also said that the regulation did not unfairly single out those with religious beliefs and that requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions in a timely manner is a neutral rule and does not target religious beliefs for negative treatment.


“I have seen what the Stormanses have said in the case,” Blanding said. “They make it seem that it was some abortion rights group that started this and that we were targeting their religion.


“But that’s not true,” she continued. “It was a bunch of local women who were just stunned that the place where we were shopping and enjoying could ever do this. A lot of people just felt judged.”


Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, said the 9th Circuit came to the right decision.


“States have every right to set policies that guarantee patients’ access to medical care,” he said. “The Religious Right and its allies have been waging war on women’s access to reproductive health services. This is one battle they have now lost.”