Judge upholds pharmacist's termination

Pharmacist who refused to dispense birth control for religious reasons loses lawsuit against Wal-Mart.

Published June 6, 2006 5:33PM (EDT)

A progressive development in the pharmacy wars: U.S. District Judge John Shabaz upheld Wal-Mart's firing of a pharmacist who refused to fill birth control and emergency contraceptive prescriptions. The Associated Press reports that Neil Noesen, a Roman Catholic, claimed that he was fired by a Wal-Mart in Onalaska, Wis., last summer because of religious discrimination. According to the AP, Noesen argued that the agreement he signed with Wal-Mart and the Medical Staffing Agency -- an employment agency that was also named in the lawsuit -- allowed him to simply walk away from customers seeking contraception and that "his boss was pressuring him to help customers seeking birth control."

In a 12-page ruling Shabaz wrote that the firing was "justified because he was disruptive and failed to meet Wal-Mart's expectations." Shabaz explained that Wal-Mart and the Medical Staffing Agency accommodated Noesen's religious beliefs by allowing other pharmacists to fill birth control prescriptions. However, he found that Noesen went too far "by putting customers who called about birth control on hold indefinitely and refusing to get service for those who showed up in person without notifying other pharmacists."

Noesen was actually sanctioned by the state Pharmacy Examining Board last year and fined $20,767 after refusing to fill a contraceptive prescription or transfer it to another pharmacist while working at a Kmart in another part of the state. The AP reports that "the board reprimanded him and forced him to attend ethics classes, saying he could not stand in the way of women's care."

What's particularly important about this case is that it's one of the first in the country dealing with religious accommodations for pharmacists. Additionally, after Noesen's sanction Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would prohibit state regulators from punishing pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth control -- and the plan failed to win approval in either chamber.

As Stephanie Adler, the lawyer who represented the Medical Staffing Agency, said of the ruling, "It demonstrates that there has to be a balance between accommodating someone's religious beliefs while at the same time providing a service and allowing people access to medical care. Noesen believes that his personal beliefs are more important than a patient's right to have access to legally prescribed medication."

It's called separation of church and health.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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