ALBANY, N.Y. (August 1998) -- Two nurses who claim they were fired for their religious opposition to abortion have a right to sue the hospital that dismissed them, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
A state Supreme Court justice dismissed a suit filed by the nurses last July, saying that although health care employees may excuse themselves from participating in abortion procedures under state law, they do not have the right to file a civil suit if they are penalized for doing so.
But the mid-level state Appellate Division modified that decision unanimously Thursday, saying that the part of their case alleging religious discrimination could go to trial.
The nurses have shown that their opposition to abortion was a morally based belief and that they "have also sufficiently demonstrated that they were terminated due to these beliefs."
Albany Medical Center maintained that the nurses were dismissed in November 1996 for refusing "to render patient care as directed" to a woman who needed an "evacuation procedure" after her unborn child had died.
Deborah Larson and Christine Thornton say in court papers they never refused to perform the procedure and were singled out because they had filed letters with Albany Medical Center expressing their religious opposition to performing or assisting in abortions.
Larson and Thornton say they were asked by the nurse in charge, Nancy Tellier, how they would feel about assisting in the laminaria. When they inquired whether they would be required to participate in elective abortions Tellier did not respond, according to court papers.
Another nurse ultimately assisted in the procedure and Tellier filed insubordination charges against the two nurses. A month later, they were fired.
Michael McDermott, who is representing Larson and Thornton, said he was "ecstatic" with the ruling. It represents the first time challenge to a 1971 statute granting employees the right to opt out of participating in abortions, but no legal remedy if they are punished.
"This sends a message that Albany Medical Center cannot treat its employees like garbage and fire them just because their position on abortion is different than the hospital's." McDermott said.
The New York State Right to Life Committee and the New York State Catholic Conference filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, saying the case "involved is the protection of conscientious objectors to abortion."
Catholic Conference Executive Director John Kerry said he hopes the case will "establish a precedent for laws that will prevent discrimination for abortion objectors, regardless of religion."