Civil Rights

Doctors can't use bias to deny gays treatment

Declining to carve out a religious exemption to civil rights laws, the California Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional rights of religious freedom and free speech do not exempt doctors from state anti-discrimination laws.

In a year when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in California, Monday's unanimous decision was another victory by gay rights groups that could resonate beyond California.

"We are a religiously pluralistic state. There are many kinds of people who have to live together in California, and I think the court framed this decision to make crystal clear that all patients must receive equal services, regardless of the reason that an individual health care practitioner might have for wanting to turn people away," said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lamda Legal, who represented plaintiff Guadalupe Benitez in the case.

Benitez, a lesbian from Oceanside, was being treated for infertility in 1999 at the only clinic that provided such treatment under her insurance coverage. When fertility drugs failed, two doctors at the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group - Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton - refused to perform an artificial insemination treatment on Benitez.

Benitez sued, claiming the doctors and clinic violated state civil rights law covering businesses; the defendants argued their "alleged misconduct, if any" was protected by the constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of religion. After a victory at the trial court level in San Diego was overturned by a state appeals court, the Supreme Court weighed in Monday.

"Do the rights of religious freedom and free speech, as guaranteed in both the federal and the California Constitutions, exempt a medical clinic's physicians from complying with the California Unruh Civil Rights Act's prohibition against discrimination?" wrote Justice Joyce Kennard, on behalf of the six other justices. "Our answer is no."

But along with the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage, the California court's decision on medical services could push conservative legislators in other states to allow doctors with moral concerns about homosexuality the ability to say no to some treatments, said Marc Spindelman, a professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

"This just adds fuel to that fire and underscores the urgency for cultural conservatives at winning where they can win," Spindelman said.

Benitez, who now has three children, said in an interview that she broke out in tears and hugged her son and partner when she heard that the California court had ruled unanimously.

"The most important thing is with this decision it makes us a step closer to making sure that other people don't have to go through what we went through," she said. "Hopefully, everybody will be treated equally by the medical profession, despite our sexual orientation."

(Published by The Mercury News - august 20, 2008)

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