Should following your God mean losing your job?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

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:


Tags: , , , , , , ,