Neil Mahoney, the former manager of a landscape company, was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that had already spread through his body. Mahoney wants to use Colorado’s End of Life Options Act, but his hospital -- a Centura Health hospital -- won't allow it. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

By Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press

A Christian-affiliated health system in a court fight over Colorado’s assisted suicide law says the state can’t stop religious organization from disciplining employees who encourage the option in violation of its beliefs.

In a federal court filing Wednesday, Colorado-based Centura Health argues in part that the U.S. Constitution’s religious freedom protections trumps the state law’s protections for doctors who both chose to or decide against prescribing lethal drugs to hasten the death of patients.

“We’re only asking them for asking clarity around how the law works for those who chose to opt out,” Centura CEO Peter Banko said Thursday.

The legal dispute started last month after Neil Mahoney, a terminally ill man, told his Centura doctor, Barbara Morris, that he wanted to get the drugs allowed under the law passed by voters in 2016. Morris wanted to help him do so but did not because of Centura’s policy against it.

MORE: Centura Health sets off national challenge to aid-in-dying laws after firing a Colorado doctor

Instead, they filed a lawsuit in state court asking a judge to decide whether she could help him because Centura’s policy allegedly violated state law. She was fired days later.

Centura, which was formed by Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist health care ministries, moved the case to federal court. Lawyers for Mahoney and Morris are trying to get it moved back to state court. At their request, a judge on Thursday granted their request for a quick decision because of Mahoney’s health.

“No matter how much Centura tries to delay this case procedurally, in the end a court of law is going to decide whether Centura can enter the hospital business but willfully ignore Colorado laws governing all hospitals, whether religious or otherwise,” said Jason Spitalnick, a lawyer representing Mahoney and Morris.

Morris worked for a Catholic hospital within Centura, St. Anthony Hospital. Directives forbid Catholic hospitals from participating in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way. Centura says those prohibitions apply to its employees who carry out its mission.

Banko said Centura feels for what Mahoney and his family are facing and said he hopes the courts will act quickly.

MORE: His wife was first to use Colorado’s aid-in-dying law. His advocacy made him an accidental resource for others.

Centura’s religious freedom argument fits within the constitutional doctrine of church autonomy, developed over the years, in which courts have usually chosen not to interfere with the decisions and autonomy of all kinds of religious institutions, including hospitals and non-profit organizations, said Frank S. Ravitch, the chair of the law and religion program at Michigan State University’s law school.

However, it is not clear whether a doctor would be seen as a kind of “minister” of the hospital group or not, he said. It is also possible that Morris could argue that Centura’s policy was interfering with her doctor-patient relationship and her ability to provide the best care to her patient, he said.

“The doctrine of autonomy has a more limited application in this context,” Ravitch said.

The Associated Press is an independent, not-for-profit news cooperative, serving member newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S., and other customers around the world. The Colorado Sun is proud to be one of them. AP journalists in more...