8.18.2008

State Supreme Court says doctors must treat gays and lesbians

State Supreme Court says doctors must treat gays and lesbians
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, August 18, 2008
08-18) 12:53 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- Doctors in California must treat gays and lesbians the same as any other patient, regardless of religious objections, the state Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the court rejected a San Diego County fertility clinic's attempt to use its physicians' religious beliefs as a justification for their refusal to provide artificial insemination for a lesbian couple.

Guadalupe Benitez sued North Coast Women's care in Vista and two of its doctors, saying they told her in 2000 that because she was a lesbian their Christian beliefs prohibited them from performing intrauterine insemination for her. The doctors later claimed they would have refused the treatment for any unmarried couple.

They referred Benitez to another clinic for the insemination. She did not become pregnant then, but since has borne three children and is raising them with her partner of 18 years.

Today's ruling, three months after overturning California's ban on same-sex marriage, strengthened the state's law that prohibits businesses, including medical clinics, from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation, as well as their race, sex or religion. The court said religious beliefs do not excuse discrimination.

The law "furthers California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation," said Justice Joyce Kennard in today's ruling.

In language that would apply equally to abortions, Kennard said doctors who have religious objections to a particular procedure or treatment can refuse to perform it for any patient, but can't selectively reject gays and lesbians. She said they also have the option of referring a patient to someone else at the clinic who will perform the procedure, an option that wasn't available in this case.

Kennard cited the court's 2004 ruling requiring Catholic Charities to abide by a state law that compels company-sponsored health plans for employees to offer contraception for women. The court said Catholic Charities, which serves and employs many non-Catholics, did not qualify for an exemption that the law provides for religious employers.

In today's ruling, the court also rejected the doctors' claim that their freedom of speech was being violated, saying they remain free to criticize the anti-discrimination law as long as they comply with it.

The ruling means the doctors cannot use their religious beliefs as a defense to Benitez's claim that they discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation when her suit goes to trial. They can still argue, however, that they had religious objections to providing the infertility treatment to unmarried couples, whose rights under the anti-discrimination law were not clearly established when Benitez visited the clinic.

Benitez, now 36, said the ruling isn't just a victory for lesbians.

"Anyone could be the next target if doctors are allowed to pick and choose their patients based on religious views about other groups of people," she said.

Kenneth Pedroza, lawyer for the doctors and the clinic, said they would decide shortly whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the high court may be ready to reconsider its 1990 ruling that upheld states' authority to enforce laws that restrict religious practices even though they were not aimed at stifling religion. That ruling allowed Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to two people who were fired for using peyote in a religious ritual at a Native American church.

Attorney Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative group that filed arguments supporting the doctors, called today's ruling "the epitome of intolerance" and said it forces the defendants "to choose between being doctors in the state of California or being able to practice their faith."

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