Monday, August 18, 2008
California's highest court on Monday barred doctors from citing their religious beliefs as a reason to deny treatment to gays and lesbians, ruling that state law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination extends to the medical profession.
The ruling was unanimous, a contrast to the state Supreme Court's 4-3 schism in May legalizing gay marriage.
Justice Joyce Kennard wrote in the ruling that two Christian fertility doctors who refused to artificially inseminate a lesbian have neither a free speech right nor a religious exemption from the state's law, which "imposes on business establishments certain antidiscrimination obligations."
In the lawsuit that led to the ruling, Guadalupe Benitez, 36, of Oceanside said that the doctors treated her with fertility drugs and instructed her how to inseminate herself at home but told her their beliefs prevented them from assisting her further.
Benitez sued Vista-based North Coast Women's Care Medical Group in 2001 under a state law that prohibits for-profit businesses from arbitrarily discriminating against clients. She won in the trial court but lost an appeals court decision. That was overturned Monday.
The law was originally designed to prevent hotels, restaurants and other public services from refusing to serve patrons because of their race. The Legislature has since expanded it to cover characteristics such as age and sexual orientation.
"It was an awful thing to go through," Benitez said at a San Diego press conference. "It was very painful - the fact that you have someone telling you they will not help you because of who you are, that they will deny your right to be a mother and have a family."
Benitez has given birth to three children through artificial insemination - Gabriel, 6, and twin daughters, Sophia and Shane, who turn 3 this weekend. She is raising them in Oceanside with her longtime partner, Joanne Clark.
Jennifer Pizer, Benitez's attorney, said the ruling was "a victory for public health" and that she expected it to have nationwide influence.
"It was a clear and emphatic that discrimination has no place in doctors' offices," Pizer said.
The case drew numerous friends of the court briefs from a wide variety of religious organizations, medical groups and gay civil rights organizations.
The American Civil Rights Union supported the Christian doctors, siding with the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations and anti-abortion groups.
The California Medical Association reversed its early support of the Christian doctors after receiving a barrage of criticism from the gay rights community, joining health care provider Kaiser Foundation Health Plan to oppose the Christian doctors.
The American Civil Liberties Union, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the National Health Law Program and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association filed papers backing Benitez.