Yesterday the U.S. District Court in Springfield, Illinois denied a motion by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former Wal-Mart pharmacist arising out of his suspension for refusing to sell Plan B and other drugs he considers abortifacient. Ruling in the decision in Ethan Vandersand v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Judge Jeanne E. Scott held that Vandersand has the right to proceed with his case against Wal-Mart under both the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act and Title VII, the federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination.
This ruling is a huge step forward in the ongoing struggle to ensure legal recognition of pharmacists right to practice their chosen profession without violating their moral and professional integrity. Wal-Marts arguments, now soundly rejected by this Court, may no longer be used by corporate or governmental officials to squeeze out of the profession pharmacists who have a high regard for the sanctity of all human life.
The case is one of a series of similar cases that have arisen since April of 2005 when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an Executive Order requiring that all Illinois retail pharmacies make available without delay Plan B and other forms of emergency contraception. More than a dozen Illinois pharmacists who voiced religious objections to dispensing the drugs have been fired or suspended over the issue by employers purportedly implementing the Governors order.
Ethan Vandersand, who worked at a Wal-Mart pharmacy in Beardstown, Illinois, was suspended by Wal-Mart after he responded to a telephone inquiry from a Planned Parenthood nurse about whether or not he dispensed Plan B. In his lawsuit, he contends that it is his right to step away from prescriptions such as Plan B and that, by suspending him, Wal-Mart violated both the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act and Title VII. Wal-Mart argued that the Right of Conscience Act did not cover pharmacists and that, under the Acts definitions, pharmacists are not considered health care providers who participate in the furnishing of health care services. The retailer also contended that it could not accommodate Vandersands beliefs (as required by Title VII) because it was merely implementing the Governors Executive Order.
In rejecting each of Wal-Marts arguments, Judge Scott held that the plain language of the Right of Conscience Act, which speaks in terms of any person, unquestionably shows that it covers pharmacists, and that they are to be considered health care providers who participate in the furnishing of health care services. The court likewise rejected the Title VII argument, pointing out that the Governors Order placed a duty on pharmacy owners not on individual pharmacists, leaving it up to the owners to fashion a policy for complying with the Order without violating the rights of their individual pharmacist employees.
In enacting the Right of Conscience Act, the people of Illinois expressed their desire to have the State and private individuals respect the consciences of all the states citizens when it comes to participating in morally controversial medical services. That this mandate includes pharmacists should never have been in dispute. That it took a lawsuit to establish what should have been obvious from the language of the Act is a testament to the ingenuity of some in our society who would place political advantage or the corporate bottom-line above fundamental human rights. It also shows the need for vigilance and resolve in resisting such encroachments on our freedom.
This ruling highlights the importance of our organizations continuing work in this crucial area of protecting religious liberties. We are currently involved in a dozen cases across the country seeking to protect the right of conscience, and this ruling demonstrates that our work is bearing fruit.