CVS sued by nurse who was fired after she refused to prescribe birth control

CVS Health is facing another lawsuit brought by a former employee who claims the pharmacy chain's decision to fire her after she refused to prescribe birth control to patients violated her religious rights under federal law. J. Robyn Strader, a nurse practitioner and Texas resident, worked at a CVS MinuteClinic for six and a half years, according to the lawsuit, which she filed through her attorney in U.S. district court in Forth Worth on Wednesday.

The complaint alleges that CVS terminated Strader's employment illegally, arguing that the company's decision dismissed protections outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The provision, passed as part of a broader package of landmark legislation in 1964, prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. One section of Title VII specifically notes that "[t]he term 'religion' includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

Strader claims in the new lawsuit that her Christian faith prevented her from prescribing contraceptive or abortion-inducing drugs to patients at the CVS where she worked. For the majority of Strader's tenure there, she says CVS granted her a religious accommodation that allowed her to personally reject patients' requests for those prescriptions and instead refer them to a colleague or a different MinuteClinic. But, in August 2021, CVS Health revoked a previous policy regarding religious accommodations that ensured all employees' needs would be met, the suit says.

"CVS's new policy is to deny all such religious accommodations without considering the particular circumstances of the employee requesting the accommodation, including to determine whether that employee could be accommodated without undue hardship," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit asserts that the pharmacy could have transferred Strader to a role that would not require her to be in situations where she might have to prescribe birth control, instead of keeping her in an "essential" position where providing religious accommodation directly conflicted with the function of her job. Citing both the Civil Rights Act and another court case that states employers must consider religious accommodation requests on an individual basis, the lawsuit also claims that CVS "failed to engage with her about possible accommodations, and terminated her because of her religious beliefs."

A CVS Pharmacy sign stands in Mount Lebanon, Pa., on Monday May 3, 2021. / Credit: Gene J. Puskar / AP
A CVS Pharmacy sign stands in Mount Lebanon, Pa., on Monday May 3, 2021. / Credit: Gene J. Puskar / AP

Strader's legal complaint is similar to two other suits filed in Kansas and Virginia against CVS Health last year, where former employees alleged that they were unlawfully terminated for refusing to prescribe birth control because of their religious beliefs. In the Virginia complaint, filed last September, the plaintiff, Paige Casey, was represented by the conservative nonprofit legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom.

Around the time Casey's lawsuit was filed, Michael DeAngelis, a spokesperson for CVS, told CBS MoneyWatch that the company does try to accommodate employees' religious beliefs, but providing sexual and reproductive health services to patients is a fundamental part of working at its walk-in clinics.

"It is not possible ... to grant an accommodation that exempts an employee from performing the essential functions of their job," DeAngelis said in a statement. "We cannot grant exemptions from these essential MinuteClinic functions."

DeAngelis echoed that sentiment in another statement shared with CBS News after Strader's lawsuit was filed. Addressing the allegations included in it against CVS Health, the spokesperson said that there is still a corporate channel for employees to request, and in some cases, receive accommodation for religious beliefs, which can involve exemptions from professional duties. However, DeAngelis reiterated that exemptions as religious accommodations do not apply to "the essential functions" of an employee's job.

"We have a well-defined process in place for employees to request and be granted a reasonable accommodation due to their religious beliefs, which in some cases can be an exemption from performing certain job functions. It is not possible, however, to grant an accommodation that exempts an employee from performing the essential functions of their job," DeAngelis said in the statement.

"As we continue to enhance our MinuteClinic services, educating and treating patients regarding sexual health matters - including pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted infection prevention, screening and treatment, and safer sex practices - have become essential job functions of our providers and nurses," the statement continued, adding, "We cannot grant exemptions from these essential MinuteClinic functions unless it is required by state law."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that in 1973 established federal rights to choose to have an abortion, states across the country have passed their own laws restricting access to the procedure, with at least 13 of them enacting near-total abortion bans. Both CVS and Walgreens, which are the nation's largest drugstore chains, recently told CBS MoneyWatch that they intend to sell the abortion drug mifepristone after the Food and Drug Administration reversed a ruling that prevented retail pharmacies from dispensing the medication.

The FDA's decision came just days after a Justice Department ruling confirmed that U.S. Postal Service can continue to deliver abortion medication by mail, even in states that have passed restrictions since Roe's reversal. Although CVS and Walgreens drugstores will not be able to sell mifepristone in states where abortion is banned, the FDA ruling is expected to expand access to a drug that previously was limited to smaller mail-order pharmacies.

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