Riverside, CA -- December 2000 -- A nurse who once worked for Riverside County, California, has filed a federal lawsuit contending she was fired because she refused -- based on religious beliefs -- to dispense emergency contraception.
In March 1999, Michele Diaz and four other nurses at the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center on Indiana Avenue voiced concerns about dispensing the so-called "morning-after pill." The nurses said they could not refer women for abortions or dispense the pill because they would be participating in a process they believed was immoral.
Diaz was fired days after being quoted in media report about the nurses' beliefs. The other nurses resigned from their jobs.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Thursday, names Riverside County health officials. The suit argues that Diaz's firing violated her constitutional rights, including the right to free speech. Her termination also violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, because the county refused to accommodate her religious beliefs, the suit contends.
County Counsel William Katzenstein said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.
The lawsuit was filed on Diaz's behalf by the American Center for Law and Justice and the Temecula, CA law firm of Tyler, Dorsa and Eldridge. The complaint alleges that Diaz suffered financial losses and damage to her professional reputation. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
County health officials have said Diaz' firing had nothing to do with her religious-based stand. When they refused to dispense the pills, the nurses were violating federal laws that require nurses to advise patients of all their options, county officials have said.
"I expressed my freedom of religion and my freedom of speech, and I feel that threatened them," Diaz said last year. "It is clearly and obviously discrimination."
Frank Manion, Diaz's attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, said Diaz was still on probationary status when she was fired.
"That's the excuse they used, that they don't have to give her a reason," he said.
Diaz did not resign, as the other nurses did, because she was pregnant and needed her job and benefits, Manion said. Diaz filed the lawsuit because she believes the issue is important for nurses in general, not just for her, he said. The American Center for Law and Justice is a national public-interest law firm that specializes in constitutional law and focuses on pro-life and family issues.