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Has Walgreens Found a Way Around Pharmacists' Religious Objections?

January 25, 2013

You would think if you were a devout Jew or Muslim, you would probably not take a job in a pork processing facility. If you're a Christian Scientist, going to med school to become a surgeon probably isn't the right fit for you. It's because of this logic that I've always questioned why someone would choose to become a pharmacist knowing in advance they may need to refuse to dispense drugs prescribed by doctors.

Regardless of my own figurative head scratching, there have been numerous cases over the years in which pharmacists have cited religion as the reason for refusing to dispense prescriptions to patients who clearly don't share their beliefs. In large metro areas, there is usually a way around this particular challenge for the consumer, but in rural areas the decision to deny service is much more problematic.

Clearly, this is an issue that is not going away anytime soon as evidenced by Walgreens announcement that it would not allow the personal religious beliefs of individual pharmacists to keep customers from getting their prescriptions. The company faced a situation last year where two women were denied access to birth control prescriptions by a pharmacist in one of its stores in New Mexico. According to reports, Walgreens pharmacists in Alabama and Georgia have refused to sell emergency contraceptives to men.

The chain issued a statement: "To balance the needs of our pharmacists and our customers, Walgreens has developed appropriate policies and procedures for our pharmacies to assure that these prescriptions, for example, birth control, are handled as efficiently as other prescriptions without imposing any burden on the customer."

Walgreens plans to provide training to store personnel so they may comply with its policy in the future.


Discussion Questions:

Do you see the issues that arise when pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions as a hiring or training matter? How can pharmacy operators guarantee customers access to prescription medicines in light of pharmacists' objections, especially in smaller, rural locations?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Should companies be allowed to ask prospective employees if there is any reason they will not be able to fulfill all their responsibilities as a pharmacist before hiring them?


Boy this is a tricky one, and I'd want to see a lawyer's point of view. My knee-jerk reaction is "It's a hiring issue. You're not going to train someone out of their religion." But it seems borderline discriminatory.

On the flip side, as was mentioned in the article a career as a surgeon is probably not a great idea if you're a Christian Scientist and one has to wonder if the employee is taking the job solely for the purpose of foisting their religious beliefs on others.

It's a sticky wicket. The only thing I am 100% certain of is that training will be of little to no value.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

It's a hiring matter to me. A pharmacist certainly has a right to his/her religious beliefs and to allow those beliefs to dictate what they will and won't dispense. Walgreens should not be hiring those people because they can't do the job that Walgreens needs done.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

The short answer is that religion is becoming an increasingly polarizing factor in our society and so there is no reason to believe that this is a problem that's going to go away.

It cannot become a hiring issue, otherwise Walgreens might find itself refusing to hire Catholic pharmacists, for example, thereby opening itself up to discrimination charges.

One could screen for Mario Cuomo Catholics, i.e., those that don't believe in certain practices but don't think they have the right to impose those beliefs on others, or members of other faiths opposed to contraceptives, morning after pills or other whatever, but what happens to existing employees who are "born again" or have a similar experience and change their minds about selling those products?

The article doesn't tell us what these new policies are going to look like, so it's all but impossible to answer the last question. Given the shortage of pharmacists in certain locals, I assume this will continue to be an issue.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

Scheduling pharmacists who can perform the job is an issue. If dispensing all prescriptions is part of the job requirement for a particular company, then pharmacists can choose to work for that retailer or not. Since many pharmacies have one pharmacist on duty at a time, I do not see how it would be possible for a pharmacy to fill a consumer's prescription otherwise.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

The issue should be addressed at the time of hiring and reinforced through training. People applying for the positions and those currently in the positions should know the company's policies on dispensing medicines that might run counter to a pharmacist's personal preferences.

Consumers should not be held hostage to religious beliefs when filling needed medical prescriptions.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

I think the best way is to make all birth control pills and contraceptives over-the-counter products that do not require a prescription.

I remember when I was a kid and condoms were dispensed by a pharmacist. You had to ask and tell them the kind you wanted. When the pharmacist plays bridge with your mom, its not cool. Either that or drive to a big city gas station men's room, pay more and have no confidence in what you are buying. Eventually retailers in small towns just put them out on the sales floor with everything else. Do the same thing with birth control pills. Put them out on the sales floor in the family planning section.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

What a polarizing world we live in, and this issue becomes a nightmare for everyone. The lawyers are gearing up for this, and it will become easy pickings, as the issue of contraception is forced onto some pharmacists who choose not to participate.

What are they going to do to the existing pharmacists, who now must choose to dispense or lose their jobs? There are no clear-cut ways to handle this without clogging up the courts with more headaches. Very sad indeed.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

Filling all prescriptions by all pharmacists should be a requirement of the job, regardless of their religious or moral beliefs; end of discussion. If they can't do that and perform the job requirements, they need to choose another profession and not be hired. The question should be asked "Is there any reason, opinion or belief that will prevent you from doing your job in filling all legal prescriptions?" Employers should be able to establish job requirements and mandates as long as they're legal and do not put employees' safety in jeopardy.

Rick Reddick, Consultant, NA

I know it cannot happen overnight, however, I believe, based on the nature of the medication—birth control pills in this case—someone else working in the pharmacy should be able to dispense. Now you pharmacy people, don't jump all over me. I don't know the business, but perhaps there is an answer in there somewhere. There needs to be.

Lee Kent, Sharing Insights for Success in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

Of course it's a hiring issue. Willingness to dispense drugs strictly in accordance with physician's instructions (i.e., "prescriptions") is a "bona fide occupational qualification" (BFOQ) for pharmacists. Screening on this basis is therefore not discriminatory. Pharmacists have no more right to impose themselves between physicians and patients than Congress does.

Grant Bergman, Marketing Consultant, Bergman Consulting

"Walgreens...would not allow the personal religious beliefs of individual pharmacists to keep customers from getting their prescriptions." There's only one day a year we should even be contemplating a sentence like this... Aptil 1st. Fire them—it's called insubordination—or, better, yet don't hire them in the first place. As for "balancing the needs of our pharmacists and our customers," what's to "balance"? WAG isn't here for the pharmacists' benefit.


Pharmacy operators can shift to promoting their delivery services in rural areas. This is a cost-savings tool not only for the pharmacy, but also the consumer. It also eliminates the threat of being denied medication to the consumer while providing the ease and peace of mind of picking up you medication at your own house. Pharmacy operators can not change the religious stance of its employees, however, they can shift behavior in the consumer by incentives and efficient marketing.

Matt Lincoln, IT eCommerce Business Analyst, Quill.com

Norman Rockwell, pharmacist. He sings in the choir in this most devoutly religious rural area and but for that one category of product, he is a treasured member of the community.

The community, including the doubters (those dang hipsters driving up the real estate prices!) each have stories of his legendary late night deliveries in that beat up Chevy, in treacherous storms, to deliver medication—like that one about how he helped save the child of that snowed in young couple. Yes, Norman Rockwell—some say he's not just a pharmacist, he's the glue of Bedford Falls. But this is the 21st century and Norman, we have a policy. You're fired!


Later that evening at Bingo, Grand Ma Smith laments: "Too bad no one suggested Drugstore.com & FedEx, I think with RFID chain-of-custody controls, they could have sent Charlene's pills to that nice hippie couple who own Mail Boxes Etc."

I know, I am on a highway to hell—no offense.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

It's not just hiring, it's also a matter of licensing. If a drug is legal, then a pharmacist has no business not dispensing a prescription. If they have religious objections to certain aspects of their job then they shouldn't take it. If they fail to dispense legal drugs for a legal prescription, they should lose their license.

With discrimination complaints, as someone said, the firm should state their job requirements, which are to dispense all legal prescriptions, without discrimination of any sort. If a pharmacist says they can't abide by that, don't hire them. It's not discrimination because they can't meet the requirements of the job. OTOH, if legislatures pass laws stating that firms can't make decisions on that basis, that potential employee's religious beliefs trump company policy and the ability to hire, that's something different. Sadly.

Richard Layman, Consultant, Retail Empire LLC

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