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Court rules for pediatric nurse in major health care right of conscience case against Dr. Sandra Martell and Winnebago County, Illinois

Court finds that County violated pediatric nurse Sandra Rojas’s rights under Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act

Media Contacts: Barbara Fornasiero, EAFocus   Communications; [email protected]; 248.260.8466; Noel Sterett; [email protected]; 815.997.7221

Rockford, Ill. —October 27, 2021—Noel Sterett, a religious liberty attorney and partner in the law firm Dalton + Tomich, announced the trial court’s judgment on October 27, 2021, in favor of a pediatric nurse who sought protection under the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. Sterett filed suit on behalf of his client, Sandra Rojas, in 2016 after she lost her job of 18 years at the Winnebago County Health Clinic in Rockford, Illinois. Rojas was told she could no longer work at the clinic after she refused to participate in the provision of abortion referrals and abortifacients.

“I went into pediatrics to make children’s lives better and served at the clinic for 18 years. But when the new Public Health Administrator, Dr. Martell, told me I had to start providing abortion referrals and contraception, I knew couldn’t violate my conscience and beliefs about the sanctity of life,” said Nurse Rojas.

In Illinois, there are two statutes that protect a health care worker’s right to not participate in medical services which violate his or her conscience: the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act (Conscience Act) and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

“These two statutes provide greater protection for religious liberty than even the Constitution does,” Sterett said.

In March 2020, the Illinois Appellate Court rejected the County’s request to substantially weaken the employee-protections of the Conscience Act and RFRA. The County had asked the court to read into both state laws certain employer protections found in an unrelated federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court rejected the County’s arguments and upheld the protections of the Conscience Act and RFRA.

The case proceeded to trial in early 2021 before Chief Judge Eugene G. Doherty of 17th Judicial Circuit Court. Nurse Rojas can now petition the court to recover her attorney fees and litigation expenses from the County.

“The court’s decision is a win for all health care professionals throughout Illinois,” Sterett said. “Healthcare professionals should not be forced to violate their conscience to keep their jobs.”

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