Nurse practitioner fired over religious exemption for birth control files lawsuit

(The Sentinel) – A Kansas nurse practitioner says she was fired because of her faith – despite having had a religious exemption for years.

Suzanne Schuler is suing her former employer…

(The Sentinel) – A Kansas nurse practitioner says she was fired because of her faith – despite having had a religious exemption for years.

Suzanne Schuler is suing her former employer MinuteClinic Diagnostic of Kansas – a subsidiary of CVS pharmacies – in federal court, alleging discrimination.

Schuler was employed as a nurse practitioner for the company from 2009 through 2021. Schuler, who is a devout Nazarene, is opposed to birth control — particularly the so-called “morning after pill” and had originally received a religious exemption in 2011 when the company began to require that she refill prescriptions for contraceptives and again in 2015 when the job description was changed to require that she write them as well.

According to the complaint, the accommodations “allowed Ms. Schuler to reschedule those services or to have an individual go to a different nearby CVS store to obtain the birth control prescription task. In 2021, MinuteClinic revised its position description of ‘Nurse Practitioner / Physician Assistant’ but did not change the primary duties and responsibilities of that position. Despite no complaints or incidents resulting from that accommodation, MinuteClinic abruptly stopped respecting Ms. Schuler’s religious beliefs in September 2021 and fired her October 31, 2021 for refusing to prescribe abortion causing drugs.”

CVS, for its part, simply says in its answer, “removing essential functions of the job” would not be considered a “reasonable accommodation” for the purposes of a religious exemption and that doing so would constitute an “undue hardship” on its operations.

“Although the job duties of a Nurse Practitioner always included discussing and prescribing contraceptives, and such duties were specifically identified in the original job description, the job description was revised to emphasize these duties were essential functions of the position,” CVS’ answer reads. “Indeed, Nurse Practitioners needed to be willing and able to perform these duties as doing so enabled the business to complete its mission of providing “primary care enablement” services to patients without having to turn them away for services (such as the prescription of contraceptives and/or abortifacients).”

CVS went on to say that – understanding some employees had objections – they held “town hall” meetings and “it was communicated that, regardless of prior accommodations, Nurse Practitioners would be expected to provide holistic, evidence-based care inclusive of education and treatment for pregnancy prevention, STI prevention, and safer sex practices and that accommodations in the form of exemptions from performing these essential functions would no longer be granted. Nurse Practitioners were informed that should they remain unwilling to prescribe contraceptives and/or otherwise discuss sexual health options with patients, their employment with MinuteClinic would be terminated as of October 31, 2021.”

According to Schuler’s attorney, Linus Baker, the idea that there was “undue hardship” is nonsense.

“They said that they wanted to provide ‘holistic services,’ but all that means is they just wanted the nurses to forgo their religious beliefs,” Baker said in a phone interview. “In other words, they haven’t changed the job description. They’re still doing the same services, women’s services, that they’ve been doing since 2015. Nothing’s changed.

“Here’s the problem for them, they’d have to say, ‘well, we lost customers, we lost income, or, you know, we just can’t do it anymore, but they never documented anything. Miss Schuler says that they never asked her to document one customer that she referred down the street to another CVS to get birth control, so they don’t even know.”

Moreover, Baker said, not every CVS clinic provides the same services. As an example, some do not provide COVID-19 vaccinations, and there are some women’s services that require two people — for example, a cervical exam where a nurse practitioner and LPN or RN would have to be present.

“Well, they don’t staff these clinics with a nurse and a nurse practitioner. So if somebody walked in and said, ‘I want that service,’ you’d either have to come back the next day, or they’d have to send you down to another locale that maybe had two people. So this idea of referring customers to another CVS is not remarkable. They did it all the time.”

He also said it was “rare” for Schuler to have to refer someone to a different clinic or ask them to come back.

Baker said the number of actual exemptions is miniscule – especially in comparison to the approximately 1,100 clinics operated by the company.

There have been a grand total of four nurses nationwide fired for refusing to violate their religious beliefs, Baker said, rendering the suggestion of “undue harm” absurd.

Indeed, Paige Casey is suing in Virginia district court over the same issue, and Robyn Strader of Keller, Texas, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Baker said they originally filed a charge with the EEOC but recently requested EEOC to dismiss the case and issue a “notice of right to sue,” which clears the way for the first federal lawsuit on the issue in the nation.

Schuler is asking for lost wages and benefits, reinstatement, punitive and compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees.

“You’ve taken her livelihood, taken her seniority,” Baker said. ” It’s malicious. I think we’re going to discover some things about what new management thought about these very few nurses.

“You’re not going to find a business reason for it at all.”