Nurse fired after refusing to dispense ‘morning-after’ pill sues California county

Friday, December 8, 2000

A Riverside, Calif., nurse has filed a federal lawsuit claiming she
was fired because she refused to dispense an emergency contraception known as
the “morning-after” pill.

To Michelle Diaz, giving the pill to a patient would have been like
contributing to an abortion, says the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court
on Nov. 30. The nurse is claiming that her free-speech and religious-liberty
rights were violated when she was fired by the county-operated Riverside
Neighborhood Health Center after speaking to reporters about her opposition to
dispensing the morning-after pill.

The contraceptive, a high-dose birth control pill that prevents
ovulation or implantation of a fertilized egg, is available only by
prescription in most states.

“This case centers on the rights of our client to hold religious
beliefs and have those beliefs accommodated by her employer,” said Diaz’s
attorney, Frank Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“Our client did not want to dispense medication that she believes
places her in a position to participate in an abortion. It is our position that
her deeply held religious beliefs were ignored by her employer and it is our
belief that she was wrongly fired because of those beliefs,” Manion said
in a news release.

The lawsuit, which names as defendants the County of Riverside Health
Services Agency, Kenneth B. Cohen, director of the agency, and Gary Feldman,
county director of public health, also argues that county officials violated
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when they fired Diaz, because they
refused to accommodate her religious beliefs.

According to the lawsuit, on May 18, 1999, Feldman asked Diaz and
three other nurses to sign a document that required them to dispense the
“morning-after” pill and other “pregnancy-ending
medications.” They all refused to sign the document, the complaint

Sometime earlier, Diaz, who was pregnant at the time, the three other
nurses and their supervisor had agreed that the nurses would not be required to
dispense the pill, but would only be asked to provide information about the
emergency contraception to patients, the lawsuit claims.

Feldman told Diaz and the other nurses that they would be fired if
they refused to sign the document, according to Diaz’s lawsuit. The other
nurses resigned, but Diaz did not. She needed her job and benefits because she
was pregnant, Manion said.

On June 17, 1999, Diaz’s physician instructed her to stay home from
work for a few days because of complications with her pregnancy. While she was
home, newspaper and local television reporters, who had learned about the
controversy, contacted the nurse, and she explained her position. Manion said
it was not clear how reporters learned of Diaz’s views on the emergency

On June 23, 1999, when Diaz returned to work, Feldman gave her a
notice of termination. According to Manion, Diaz was still on probation status
as a new employee when she was fired. County officials used the nurse’s
probationary status as an excuse to fire her, Manion contends.

“There were no problems with her work,” he said. “They
were just looking for a reason to cover themselves.”

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLJ, and the Temecula, Calif., law firm of
Tyler, Dorsa and Eldridge, seeks unspecified monetary damages for Diaz, who
claims that she suffered financial losses and damage to her professional

“There will be more cases like this if the AMA (American Medical
Association) decides to make the morning-after pill more accessible as an
over-the-counter drug,” Manion told
The Freedom Forum Online. The attorney
said that recently an Ohio pharmacist refused to dispense emergency
contraceptive medication because of his religious beliefs.

According to a Dec. 1 Associated Press article, the AMA is debating
whether the morning-after pill should be made available over the counter.
Although Wal-Mart decided last year not to sell the pill, the AMA’s Council on
Medical Service is recommending that it be made easier to obtain, the AP

The American Medical News,
an AMA publication, reported Dec. 5 that “a growing chorus of women’s
health advocates is calling for over-the-counter sales of emergency
contraceptives and greater public education.”

In April 1999, AP reported that Vatican official Monsignor Elio
Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the pill an
“abortion technique” and said that it should not be confused with

William Katzenstein, counsel for the County of Riverside Health
Services Agency, did not return phone calls for comment.

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