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Calif. Supremes rules against zealot doctor
Calif. Supremes rules against zealot doctor
by Lisa Keen - Keen News Service

The Supreme Court of California ruled unanimously Monday (August 18) that a medical practice cannot use the religious beliefs of its doctors to deny certain medical services to a Lesbian.

Guadalupe Benitez, with the help of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed the lawsuit in August 2001 against the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group after two doctors in the practice refused to provide insemination service to her because she is a Lesbian.

"We're relieved and delighted," said Lambda Legal attorney Jenny Pizer. "It's a very important decision. I think it will mean better quality health care for lots of people - not just Gay people. There are lots of discrimination against people based on religious beliefs and anyone could be vulnerable to being turned away."

The case has generated significant media attention because of the conflict it poses between religious liberty and LGBT equality. Pizer said she has heard the defendant may file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court but she thinks it seems "extremely unlikely" the high court would grant review.

One doctor, Christine Brody, said her religious beliefs preclude her from providing IUI service to "any unmarried" woman and that the refusal was not based on Benitez's status as a lesbian. That, however, was in 1999, when same-sex marriage was not legal in California.

The second doctor, Douglas Fenton, also refused to perform the insemination procedure citing religious objections and suggested Benitez go elsewhere for medical care. (Two other physicians in the practice were not licensed to perform the specific procedure Benitez sought.)

The medical group said the refusal was simply an exercise of the doctor's constitutional right to free exercise of religion. But attorneys for Benitez argued that the refusal violated both the federal and state constitutions and the state's Unruh Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination by business establishments offering services to the public and while, in 1999, it did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination explicitly, the state supreme court has ruled that such discrimination is covered. (And the legislature added sexual orientation in 2005.)

The California Supreme Court, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, said the Unruh Act "is a valid and neutral law of general applicability" and that the First Amendment guarantee to free exercise of religion "does not exampet defendant physicians here from conforming their conduct to the Act's antidiscrimination requirements even if compliance poses an incidental conflict with defendants' religious beliefs."

"To avoid any conflict between their religious beliefs and the state Unruh Civil Rights Act's antidiscrimination provisions," said the court, "defendant physicians can simply refuse to perform the IUI medical procedure at issue here for any patient of North Coast, the physicians' employer. Or, because they incur liability under the Act if they infringe upon the right to the 'full and equal' services of North Coast's medical practice defendant physicians can avoid such a conflict by ensuring that every patient requiring IUI receives 'full and equal' access to that medical procedure through a North Coast physician lacking defendants' religious objections."

According to Pizer, Benitez lives with her registered domestic partner Joanne Clark in San Diego County. After failing to receive service at North Coast, which would have been covered by their health plan, they went to another doctor and paid out-of-pocket for the service. They have a son, 6, and 3-year-old twin daughters.

2008 Keen News Service

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