On January 28, 2020, I will argue a key health care right of conscience case before the 2nd District Appellate Court of Illinois. My client, Sandra Rojas, is a pediatric nurse who worked at the Winnebago County Health Clinic for eighteen years. In 2014, the County’s new Public Health Administrator decided that all the nurses in the clinic had to participate in the provision of abortion related services. When Sandra, a practicing Catholic, informed the administrator of her religious and conscientious objections to such services, the administrator informed her that she could no longer work at the clinic. Even though other nurses were available to provide the services, and even though Sandra was a good nurse with no work performance issues, she lost her job for exercising her right of conscience.
After nurse Rojas lost her job at the clinic, she filed a two-count complaint alleging violations of Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, 745 ILCS 70/1 and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 775 ILCS 35/15. The Conscience Act makes it unlawful for any employer to discriminate in any manner against a nurse because of her conscientious refusal to participate in any particular form of health care contrary to her conscience. The law was enacted in 1977 in the wake of Roe v. Wade and reflects the State’s policy of respecting the right of conscience of all health care personnel. Under the Conscience Act, a health care employee can recover damages and attorneys’ fees if she can show that she was discriminated against in any manner or lost any privileges because she exercised her right of conscience. Illinois’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act also prohibits government employers from substantially burdening the religious exercise of their employees by putting them to a coercive choice–either render these services or lose your job.
In Sandra’s case, the County has filed two unsuccessful motions to have her case dismissed on summary judgment. After the trial court denied the County’s last motion, the County obtained leave to appeal the case to the Appellate Court under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308(a). The appeal will focus on how Illinois courts are to interpret and apply both the Conscience and RFRA.