- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

A federal jury in California has found that Riverside County violated the constitutional rights of a pro-life nurse who refused to dispense "morning-after" pills to end pregnancies and was quickly fired from her job.
The jury concluded that the county abridged the rights of free speech and religious freedom of Michelle Diaz, 28, of Riverside, and it awarded her $47,000. The amount included $19,000 in back pay and $28,000 for "emotional damages."
"This is a tremendous victory for our client and for all pro-life people in the health care field, who want to do their jobs without violating their consciences and religious beliefs," said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel for the American Center of Law & Justice, which represented the plaintiff in the case.
"The verdict sends a very clear message that conscience rights of employees must be respected by employers everywhere," Mr. Manion, who tried the case last week in the U.S. District Court in Riverside, added.
However, Ray Smith. spokesman for the Riverside County government, said yesterday the county intends to ask the U.S. District Court to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial. "We feel the evidence presented does not substantiate the verdict," he said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Diaz had worked at the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center six months when she was fired in June 1999 after talking to the media about her refusal to give patients high doses of a birth-control pill that converted the contraceptive to a "morning after" pill.
"Michelle drew the line at fertilization," Mr. Manion said in a telephone interview. He said the "morning-after" pill she refused to dispense to patients "was designed to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus."
To Ms. Diaz, a mother of three, that was tantamount to abortion, he said.
Mr. Manion said Ms. Diaz was one of four nurses working at the health clinic at that time who objected to its policy of requiring the handing out of "morning-after" pills to anyone who requested them. Two of the nurses resigned, and a third, who was out of the country at the time Ms. Diaz was terminated, was later transferred to another position.
The Virginia-based ACLJ, a nonprofit public-interest law firm that handles cases involving constitutional issues, filed suit against the county health center in December 2000 on Ms. Diaz's behalf.
During the four-day trial last week, attorneys representing the county kept insisting Ms. Diaz was terminated because of dissatisfaction with her job performance. Mr. Manion said the county lawyers said Ms. Diaz had been "intimidating" some temporary nurses who worked at the center, purportedly telling them they would have to perform abortions.
"But Michelle did not say that. And we brought two of those nurses into the courtroom, and they both said she did not say that so the county's story was totally" destroyed, Mr. Manion said.
Bruce Disenhouse, who represented the county in the trial, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Family planning advocates say they believe the ruling could set a dangerous precedent if it means the rights of a nurse working at a tax-funded reproductive health clinic are put ahead of those of a patient.
In addition to finding that the county infringed on Ms. Diaz's freedom of speech and religion, the federal jury of five women and three men also ruled the jurisdiction did not reasonably accommodate her religious beliefs.
As for Ms. Diaz, Mr. Manion said she is employed today as a "charge nurse" at a hospital in the Riverside area.


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