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Should Government Force Walgreens to Employ Salespeople Who Refuse to Sell Its Products?

Pharmacist Advising Client At PharmacyPharmacist Philip Hall is suing Walgreens, alleging that the company violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it fired him for refusing, on religious grounds, to sell the birth-control drug Plan B. But Walgreens is a pharmacy; the notion that it should be forbidden to require its employees who are hired to sell pharmaceuticals to actually sell pharmaceuticals is absurd. Consider the facts.

Hall opposes Plan B because it might act as an abortifacient. According to FDA-approved labeling, Plan B (a brand name for Levonorgestrel) “works mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary,” but it possibly also works by “preventing fertilization of an egg . . . or by preventing attachment” of a zygote to the uterine wall. (The claim that Plan B can prevent attachment is disputed.)

Prior to June 2013, the Food and Drug Administration mandated that Plan B be sold to patients under seventeen only via prescription; in June 2013, the FDA dropped the prescription requirement. Before the change, Walgreens exempted Hall from selling the drug, so long as he referred customers wanting it to another pharmacist or store. After the change, Walgreens required that Hall sell Plan B as a condition of employment. When he refused, Walgreens fired him, and he sued under federal law.

Hall’s suit is based on the insane premise that businesses somehow have a moral obligation to employ people who refuse to do what the business employs them to do. People start businesses and invest in them to make money. Walgreens makes money by selling drugs and medical supplies—and it employs salespeople to sell those items.

Imagine the government forcing Barnes & Noble to employ Christians who refused to sell atheist books or vegans who refused to sell Atkins diet books. Imagine the government forcing a meatpacking company to employ Muslims who refused to touch pork.

Walgreens has a moral right to set its terms of employment, and Hall has a moral right to seek work elsewhere if he does not wish to abide by Walgreens’s terms.

By permitting the suit to proceed, the federal government is not only violating rights of employers and employees to freely contract regarding terms of employment; it is doing so in an especially nonobjective way. Walgreens will lose its case if the courts decide the store should have reasonably accommodated Hall’s religious objections to selling Plan B. Walgreens will win if the courts decide accommodating Hall’s personal beliefs would have created an unreasonable burden to the company. Although the concepts of “reasonable” and “unreasonable” can be used objectively in certain areas of law, such terms cannot be objective in this case. Walgreens’s executives have a moral right to act on their judgment for their business purposes; no violation of that right can possibly be reasonable. One consequence of this gross nonobjectivity is that, whether Walgreens wins or loses, the company must pay enormous legal bills and spend vast and irreplaceable time dealing with the suit.

Hopefully the courts will apply reason and decide in favor of Walgreens. And, more hopefully, Congress will apply reason and repeal the rights-violating statutes on which such ridiculous suits are based.

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