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A holy mess: Walgreens case shows it's time to get God out of the workplace

A holy mess: Walgreens case shows it's time to get God out of the workplace
Nicole Arteaga was told by a Walgreens pharmacist that he wouldn't fill a prescription to end her pregnancy on religious grounds. The company said it respects his decision. (Associated Press)

I feel about people with strongly held religious convictions pretty much the same way I feel about people who can juggle machetes and lit torches: I’m impressed and maybe a little envious, but please be careful around others.

That’s been on my mind after it was reported this week that a Walgreens pharmacist in Arizona refused for religious reasons to fill a woman’s prescription for a medicine to induce miscarriage.

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The woman, Nicole Arteaga, 35, hadn’t wanted to abort the 9-week-old fetus. She was told by her doctor that it had stopped developing, and her choice was to either take a medication that would induce bleeding or seek a surgical alternative.

That’s very sad. It’s also nobody’s business but her own.

This is a sensitive area, I know. People and corporations have religious rights. But when religious beliefs manifest in the business world, questions naturally arise as to where lines can or should be drawn.

Put simply, does a worker’s right to practice his or her religion trump a consumer’s right to engage in a legal commercial transaction?

The answer is probably, or maybe, or it depends.

“It’s fair to say there are many possibilities for religious conflict in the commercial world,” said Helen Norton, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Every expert I spoke with about the Walgreens case said the company likely acted correctly. It accommodated a worker’s religious beliefs while also avoiding undue hardship for the customer by allowing her to fill her prescription at a nearby store.

The company said in a statement that it “allows pharmacists to step away from filling a prescription for which they have a moral objection.” In such situations, it said, the pharmacist “is required to refer the prescription to another pharmacist or manager on duty to meet the patient's needs in a timely manner.”

For her part, Arteaga said on Facebook that she “left Walgreens in tears, ashamed and feeling humiliated by a man who knows nothing of my struggles but feels it is his right to deny medication prescribed to me by my doctor.”

My feeling is that things have gotten out of hand. There was the Hobby Lobby case in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that family-owned corporations can refuse on religious grounds to pay for employee health coverage that includes contraception.

And of course there was the wedding cake case, in which the Supreme Court sided this month with a Colorado baker who refused to sell to a same-sex couple, ruling that the baker faced hostility from the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

Look, I’m not disrespecting people’s faith. But if scripture is going to define your actions, keep in mind Philippians 2:3: “In humility value others above yourselves.”

We’re sliding down a slippery slope of theocratic behavior, which is particularly troubling in light of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams, one of the nation’s founding fathers, in 1797. It explicitly declares that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution, of course, says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that latter clause provides all the cover a person of faith requires to assert his or her moral privilege.

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Moreover, 21 states, including Arizona, have passed laws safeguarding people’s right to “religious freedom,” and Arizona is one of a half-dozen states that explicitly allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions on religious or moral grounds.

There are no constitutional safeguards that directly address consumers’ rights in such situations. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act lays down some rules to the road.

It says an employer must “reasonably accommodate an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

While that seems to embrace all sorts of wiggle room, the bottom line, experts say, is that a company must respect a worker’s beliefs as long as those beliefs don’t get in the way of making money.

“Title VII does not say that the pharmacist can inflict harm or sabotage the prescription,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia. “The minor inconvenience of going to the next store over should not override the pharmacist's rights of conscience.”

He noted Arteaga’s feeling of being shamed at a particularly vulnerable moment.

However, Laycock said, “this emotional harm is a one-time thing for her. But if [the pharmacist] is required to fill prescriptions that violate his conscience, it is not a one-time thing. He must permanently surrender either his conscience or his profession.”

Here’s where I’m going to get myself into trouble.

If you’re the sort of person guided first and foremost by your religious convictions, maybe working in a science-based industry such as the dispensing of medicine isn’t the best fit for you.

Yes, yes, people have a right to pursue whatever career they please. I’m just saying that if you believe the Earth is flat — and 2% of Americans do, according to a recent survey — maybe you don’t want to work for NASA.

Or if you’re among the 21% of North American men who believe a woman shouldn’t hold a paid job, perhaps you wouldn’t be gratified by a position with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

What I’m suggesting is that instead of society bending over backward to accommodate some people’s religious beliefs — whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or whatever — maybe people of faith want to consider being more proactive in finding work that suits their personal ideology.

No one should be insulted or even inconvenienced trying to fill a legitimate prescription. I wonder how that Arizona pharmacist would have felt if a female druggist had questioned or even ridiculed his trying to fill a prescription for Viagra. What if she had said it went against her Earth Goddess beliefs?

Luke 6:31: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

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Lazarus: Juggle machetes or torches to your heart’s content, just not at work.

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