12/08/2005 12:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fundamentalists Want to Take Over -- At the Pharmacy

An "Association of Rightwing Christian Pharmacists" makes as much sense as a Zoroastrian Firefighters Association, or the Bill Maher School of Marriage Counseling - at least if you believe the activists who say they shouldn't have to provide the basic services required of the profession. Christian Conservatives say they are defending the "rights" of Christian pharmacists, but they are actually using a civil-rights argument to impose their values and their wills on the bodies of others.

Couching their legal battle as one of "civil liberties" and using code phrases like "the forced dispensing of abortion drugs," right-wing Fundamentalist groups are underwriting legal battles in Illinois and elsewhere. Their representatives are adamant:

"Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said pharmacists should not be forced to prescribe medication they find morally objectionable nor should they be required to refer patients to pharmacists who would willingly dispense those medications."

Does someone's brand of faith prevent them from dispensing contraceptives, or other forms of medication, in good conscience? Fine - then it would be reasonable to expect them to refer a patient to someone who will. If it's late in the evening in an unfamiliar town, a pharmacist saying "no" can wield a great deal of power. That's especially when someone is seeking emergency contraception, or is in urgent need of a medication.

Organized groups of "Christian pharmacists" reject that position, and want the "right" to say no whenever they choose - in some cases, denying patients the ability to fill the prescriptions elsewhere. Now Walgreen's has become the latest battleground in the Christian pharmacy war, after it "effectively fired" four Illinois pharmacists (their attorneys' language) for "refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception in violation of a state rule."

One Walgreen's pharmacist has agreed to abide by the state rule, and Walgreen's has offered to find the other three jobs across the state line in Missouri (where their behavior is legally permissible). The three would rather fight it out in court than accept these accommodations, however.

Why not? It's not costing them anything. It's paid for by a "public interest group" funded by Pat Robertson, who has apparently been able to take a break from wishing devastation on the citizens of Dover, PA. Although Robertson's group says it is pursuing the matter with the state's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you can bet the goal is not to fight discrimination - although they'll claim that it is. (Nothing seems to amuse a conservative more than to try using institutions that were created for progressive purposes, like the EEOC, for repressive purposes.)

The issue at hand is the "plan B" or "morning after" pill. But it's a short walk from there to other contraceptives - then to Viagra, condoms ... use your imagination. The "Christian pharmacist" groups and their backers say that not only should they be able to refuse to dispense medications they find immoral, but that they should have the right to refuse to help patients find other pharmacists who will help them. In fact, some claim they have the right to sieze the customer's prescription, and say that returning it to the patient would be tantamount to collaborating in a murder.

That's a very severe belief, but it's one they have every right to have. Being true to that belief, however, should demand something of them - that they choose not to be pharmacists in a civil society that practices freedom of religion. After all, Thoreau and Gandhi went to prison for their beliefs. All that these fundamentalist pharmacists' consciences ask of them is that they quit their jobs at Rite-Aid or CVS.

Buddhists in traditional Japan couldn't be butchers without violating their religious beliefs - so they didn't enter that profession. That created another problem in that culture - that of a discriminated-against caste of animal workers - but we're a heterogenous society with plenty of people willing and able to dispense medications.

The fundamentalists insist that the world should make sacrifices for their beliefs, not them. Sometimes this insistence results in claims that pharmacists have the "right" to harangue a patient at length with their personal, theological interpretations of a drug's effect - e.g., that the morning after pill "aborts a baby." In other cases, it surfaces as opposition to the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act (ALPhA), which protects an individual pharmacist's right to refuse to dispense a medication on the grounds of conscience while ensuring that a patient is given access to another pharmacist who can provide it.

Hey, we're reasonable people around these parts. If your conscience troubles you, most Americans will try to find a way to work things out with you. If it feels wrong for you to sell something from a counter - whether it's a morning after pill or "The National Review" - it's admirable when people want to be flexible. But when you want to make it impossible for someone to buy those things from anyone, it's not a matter of conscience but of control.

Come to think of it, isn't control what fundamentalism is always about?

A Night Light