The Religious Liberty Clinic at Notre Dame Law School filed an amicus brief this week with the Colorado Court of Appeals to protect the fundamental right of religiously affiliated health care workers and health systems to exercise their ministries in accordance with their religious beliefs.
The case involves a doctor, Barbara Morris, who worked at a Denver Catholic hospital run by Centura Health, a Christian health care system comprised of Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist hospitals. Morris was fired in 2019 after she sought to provide assisted suicide medication to a patient – a violation of hospital policy and her employment contract.
The use of assisted suicide drugs for terminally ill patients is legal in Colorado under the state’s medical assistance in dying law, but Centura Health and other hospital systems affiliated with the religion prohibit the practice on religious grounds.
Centura Health won summary judgment in the case in county district court, but Morris is appealing the decision in the Colorado Court of Appeals.
The Religious Liberty Clinic filed its amicus brief, which supports Centura Health’s position, on behalf of the Catholic Medical Association and the Coptic Medical Association of North America. The amici aim to defend the fundamental right of health professionals to practice medicine in accordance with their religious convictions and to preserve a place for individuals and institutions of all faiths in the medical profession.
“Fundamentally, this case is about the right of a religious hospital to provide care in accordance with its religious commitments. … Indeed, Centura’s freedom to operate in accordance with its faith is only as strong as its ability to require its employees – the very people who carry out Centura’s mission – to practice medicine in a way that respects his religious commitments,” the writ states.
Religious Freedom Clinic supervising attorney John Meiser and jurist Francesca Genova Matozzo submitted amicus brief with Notre Dame Law School graduate Eric Kniffin, partner at Lewis Roca in Colorado Springs. Three law students from the Religious Liberty Clinic – Joseph Graziano, Daniel Loesing and Olivia Rogers – participated in the brief.
The brief asserts that religiously affiliated healthcare workers and medical institutions must have the right to exercise their ministries in accordance with their religious beliefs. This includes the right to refuse to participate in practices – such as assisted suicide – that violate these beliefs.
In this specific case, the brief argues that 1) physician-assisted suicide is contrary to Christian beliefs, which hold that all life is sacred and prohibit suicide, 2) the First Amendment prohibits the courts from becoming embroiled in disputes regarding religious beliefs and policies such as Centura Health’s policy prohibiting employees from participating in assisted suicide and 3) allowing claims like Morris’s could have dire consequences for religious healthcare professionals and the healthcare system in his outfit.
“This case concerns the right of a religious hospital to answer for itself some of the most central questions of religious belief – questions about the nature and dignity of the human person, the appropriate means of caring for members the weakest in our community, and makes it the very meaning of our life and death,” Meiser said. “Dr. Morris obviously disagrees with Centura’s and St. Anthony’s Hospital responses to these questions. But the First Amendment promises these organizations the right to practice medicine in accordance with their core beliefs, and the court must reject Dr. Morris’ efforts to compel the hospital to engage in conduct that its religious commitments explicitly prohibit.
Matozzo said, “This dissertation provided students with the opportunity to develop and apply the skills they developed throughout the academic year. It was gratifying to see the students write so clearly and compellingly in support of Centura’s right to follow its religious commitment to protect the sanctity of all life.
Kniffin, who graduated from law school in 2003, said it was an honor to work with his alma mater on the case.
“Our Lady has always been a leader on the subject of religious liberty,” Knifin said. “I’m proud to see the law school’s religious liberty initiative build on this tradition to help believers in the United States and around the world.”
About Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Freedom Initiative
Established in 2020, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative promotes and defends religious freedom for people of all faiths through scholarships, events, and the law school’s Religious Liberty Clinic. The initiative protects the freedom of individuals to hold religious beliefs as well as their right to exercise, express and live by those beliefs.
The Religious Freedom Initiative has represented individuals and organizations from a range of religious traditions to defend the right to religious worship, to preserve sacred lands from destruction, to promote the freedom to choose religious ministers, and to prevent discrimination against religious schools and families.
Learn more at law.nd.edu/RLI.
The photo at the top of this page shows the Colorado Court of Appeals building. See photo credit information here.