Fed judge blocks enforcement of CA assisted suicide law that compelled religious objector docs to participate

The state of California has a law that provides for assisted suicide for certain patients that purports to be voluntary for health care entities and providers but nonetheless imposes certain requirements on providers who object to participating in assisted suicide for various reasons.

A federal district judge just blocked state enforcement of one of those requirements imposed on objecting providers as being an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment protections for free speech, The Washington Times reported.

According to the court, a requirement that health care providers who refuse to participate in assisted suicide must nevertheless document a request for aid-in-dying drugs and refer the patient to another provider constitutes government-compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment.

Forced participation despite religious objections

At issue here is a law known as SB 380 that was passed in 2021 and took effect on Jan. 1, 2022, and made several changes to California’s assisted suicide law that was already in place.

Sec. 443.14(e)(1) of the law states: “Participation under this part shall be voluntary … a person or entity that elects, for reasons of conscience, morality, or ethics, not to participate is not required to participate under this part,” though it does not “excuse noncompliance” with certain other provisions of the statute.

Among the provisions that providers who object must still comply with is Sec. 443.14(e)(2), which states: “A health care provider who objects for reasons of conscience, morality, or ethics to participate under this part shall not be required to participate. If a health care provider is unable or unwilling to participate under this part, …, the provider shall, at a minimum, inform the individual that they do not participate in the End of Life Option Act, document the individual’s date of request and provider’s notice to the individual of their objection in the medical record, and transfer the individual’s relevant medical record upon request.”

The Times noted that a hospice physician and the Christian Medical and Dental Association filed a lawsuit in February against that and other provisions of the law that they claimed violated their First Amendment-protected rights of free speech and free exercise of religion as well as their Fourteenth Amendment-protected rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

Law’s requirements

In a 26-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Fernando Aenlle-Rocha ruled that California’s assisted suicide law did not violate either of the Fourteenth Amendment claims, nor did it violate the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religious beliefs.

Where the law was in violation of the First Amendment was its prohibition against government-compelled speech, in that the law requires, notwithstanding a provider’s objection to assisted suicide, to “participate” in such an act by way of officially documenting a patient’s request for lethal drugs and proactively referring the patient to another provider who would presumably be willing to fully participate in an assisted suicide.

Thus, the judge granted in part a request for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of that particular provision of the law that “requires a healthcare provider who is unable or unwilling to participate to ‘document the individual’s date of request and provider’s notice to the individual of their objection in the medical record.'”

No longer forced

The plaintiffs in this case, the physician and the association, were represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom law firm, which cheered the court’s determination that “The ultimate outcome of this requirement is that non-participating providers are compelled to participate in the Act through [even its] documentation requirement, despite their objections to assisted suicide.”

ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in a statement, “Our clients seek to live out their faith in their medical practice, and that includes valuing every human life entrusted to their care. Participating in physician-assisted suicide very clearly would violate their consciences.”

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