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Should following your God mean losing your job?
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Muslim taxi drivers and Christian pharmacists have very different beliefs and work in very different professions. But now they share a painful dilemma: By following their consciences, they risk losing their jobs.

Last month, the commission that operates the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport clamped down on Muslim cabbies who deny service to passengers for religious reasons. Although not all Muslims agree, many Somali Muslim drivers at the airport believe  Islamic law prohibits them from carrying customers with alcohol and, in some cases, dogs. The Associated Press reports that drivers have denied service to people about 4,800 times in the past five years. Beginning in mid-May, cabbies who refuse to take passengers could lose their license.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, rules adopted by the Board of Pharmacy on April 12 require pharmacies to fill prescriptions despite any moral or religious objections an individual druggist might have. A pharmacist who refuses to comply could face disciplinary action from the board, which can revoke licenses. This rule was triggered by controversies involving the “morning after” birth-control pill — seen by some religious druggists as a form of abortion.

Both clashes between state and conscience are part of a growing debate on whether and when to accommodate religious convictions in the workplace.

In the case of the taxi drivers, airport authorities sought for months to find a solution that might satisfy all sides. Before the promulgation of the new rules, drivers who refused to take a passenger were sent to the end of the cab line (where they often had to wait for hours to get back to the front). Now they don’t have that option.

Washington pharmacists, by contrast, are granted limited accommodation under their new regulations. Druggists with moral or religious objections to a particular prescription can opt out by getting another druggist to fill it, as long as it can be done during the same pharmacy visit. But in stores where only one pharmacist is available, the rules require that the order be filled. Those who refuse risk losing their license.

Although the taxi dispute is so far confined to Minnesota, debate over the morning-after pill is occurring in many states. Some states require pharmacists to dispense prescriptions regardless of their beliefs, although in at least five states pharmacists can transfer or refer prescriptions to other druggists or pharmacies. Four states give pharmacists the right to refuse without any requirement to refer.

First Amendment challenges to the regulations by either cabbies in Minnesota or druggists in Washington would be an uphill battle because the U.S. Supreme Court has weakened protection afforded by the free-exercise clause since 1990.

But whatever the prospects for litigation in these particular cases, the larger issue remains: How should the government balance claims of conscience against other interests in our increasingly diverse society? How much accommodation is too much?

It might be argued that regulatory groups like pharmacy boards and airport commissions have no option but to deny accommodation. Some duties simply come with the job. End of discussion.

But given our nation’s commitment to religious liberty, that’s far too quick and easy. The United States has a long history of protecting claims of conscience — from the Quaker exemption from combat to the Amish exemption from compulsory school attendance. We have long recognized that to follow the dictates of conscience is, in the words of James Madison, “a duty precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

It’s undeniable that airports have an important interest in providing transportation for travelers, and pharmacies have a professional responsibility to fill legal prescriptions. But the religious-liberty challenge is to look for ways to satisfy those interests before saying “no” to the religious claim.

Muslim cabdrivers, for example, could be permitted to refuse passengers as long as another taxi is immediately available. Or the commission could require special lights on cabs that don’t allow alcohol or dogs (a proposal that was floated and then abandoned in the face of public opposition). As for Christian druggists, they could follow their consciences as long as they agree to refer customers elsewhere.

Of course, such accommodations require their own regulations that may be difficult to monitor. Will Muslim cabbies be willing to accept passengers with alcohol if no other taxi is nearby? Will a druggist who objects to the morning-after pill on religious and moral grounds be willing to help a customer find another way to get it? If compromise solutions are seen by adherents as compromising conscience, they may not work.

Religious accommodations are often difficult to make, but upholding religious freedom is worth the effort. If at all possible (it isn’t always), the government should avoid putting people to what Justice Potter Stewart called “a cruel choice” between their God and their job.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:



Wash. regulators affirm drugstores must fill morning-after pill Rxs

Under finalized rules, pharmacists who consider this form of birth control tantamount to abortion can hand off prescriptions to co-workers. 04.13.07

Minn. airport approves penalties for cabbies in alcohol dispute
Muslim taxi drivers contend commission could have found way to protect travelers' rights as well as their religious liberty. 04.17.07

Wash. pharmacists challenge emergency-contraception rules
Pharmacy owner, two druggists say state regulation forces them to choose 'between their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs.' 07.30.07

Illinois, Walgreens reach deal on dispensing 'Plan B' contraceptive
Compromise requires legislative panel to change state pharmacy rules before it can take effect. 10.11.07

Federal judge blocks Wash. rules on morning-after pill
State regulators had said druggists couldn't withhold prescriptions because of personal objections; pharmacists, drugstore owner then sued. 11.11.07

Druggist's decision carries consequences for small town
John Lane says that as of Jan. 1, he will no longer dispense birth-control pills in Montana town of 450 with no other pharmacists. 12.24.07

Federal judge won't let state enforce 'Plan B' law
Washington pharmacists, drug-store owners are challenging rules that say patient's right to emergency contraceptives trumps religious, moral objections to dispensing medication. 02.18.08

Mont. board clears druggist who won't dispense birth control
Legal defense group says state pharmacy panel has dismissed 11 complaints that were filed against John Lane, who stopped dispensing contraceptives on Jan. 1 because of his religious beliefs. 03.12.08

Calif. court considers if doctors can withhold care based on beliefs
Justices hear oral arguments in lawsuit brought by woman who claims her Christian doctors refused to perform artificial insemination because of her sexual orientation. 05.30.08

EEOC offers guidance on religious issues in workplace
Agency says updated document was released as a result of growing number of allegations of religious discrimination. 07.24.08

Calif. high court sides with lesbian in dispute with doctors
Two Christian fertility specialists who refused to artificially inseminate Guadalupe Benitez have neither free-speech right nor religious exemption from state law, justices decide. 08.19.08

Feds seek to protect doctors who refuse to perform abortions
Proposed rule would require institutions receiving government money to certify in writing that they're complying with several laws that protect conscience rights of health-care workers. 08.22.08

Circuit courts address religion in workplace
By Josh Tatum Four appeals courts find in employers' favor in cases affecting how much employees' religious freedom can be accommodated on the job; a fifth case goes in employee's favor. 04.10.08

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