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California Doctors Cannot Deny Care to Gays, Lesbians

August 19, 2008 04:49 PM
by Rachel Balik
The Calif. Supreme Court has ruled that doctors cannot use their religious beliefs as a basis to deny treatment to gay and lesbian patients.

California Supreme Court Rules Against Fertility Clinic

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The court overturned a 2005 ruling by a state appeals court which allowed doctors with religious objections to homosexuality to refuse treatment to gays and lesbians. The Unruh Civil Rights Act orders all businesses in California to treat customers equally regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. The court said that the law applies to doctors as well. Justice Joyce Kennard said that the law “furthers California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation,” reports the San Francisco Chronicle. The case concerns a fertility clinic which refused to inseminate a lesbian couple. The clinic doctors later claimed that they denied treatment because the women were not married, not because they were lesbians. The Unruh Act has since been modified to include discrimination based on marital status.
The case turned on an apparent conflict between antidiscrimination laws and the constitutionally granted right to freedom and religion. The Los Angeles Times reports that in the majority ruling, Justice Kennard said that “The 1st Amendment’s right to the free exercise of religion does not exempt defendant physicians here from conforming their conduct to the … antidiscrimination requirements.” She said that doctors were free to vocalize disapproval but still obligated to perform procedures. Kenneth R. Pedroza, lawyer for the doctors, predicted that many doctors would choose to eliminate artificial inseminations from their practice entirely if they could not legally opt out of treating gays and unmarried people.

Based on the court’s decision, the original lawsuit against the fertility clinic can go to trial.

Background: In 2005, appeals court ruled in favor of doctors

In 2005, the appeals court ruled in favor of the clinic, saying that denying treatment on religious grounds was permissible. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the 4th District Court of Appeal said that it could not be proven that doctors were discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation rather than marital status. If it was the latter reason, doctors were innocent of violating California’s discrimination laws. But gay rights advocacy lawyer Jennifer Pizer voiced her concern about the method of reasoning. “The core mistake here is, religion doesn't matter legally," she told the Tribune. According to the paper, the doctors changed their initial statement after the case began. When they went to trial, they simply said that they refused to artificially inseminate any unmarried women. The appeals court took the statement at face value and ruled in favor of the doctors.

Opinion and Analysis: Religious rights have been violated

Writing for the National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy explains the mistakes he believes the Calif. Supreme Court made. He says that laws can be overturned if they pose a threat to religion, and that determination is usually made based on the text of the law. The court ruled that there was nothing in the Unruh Act that specifically alienated people of faith, or discriminated against religious beliefs. But McCarthy disagrees, saying that the Act “is plainly designed to ostracize good-faith religious objections to homosexuality.”

Related Topic: California clerk stops performing gay marriage

Calif. doctors who feel they cannot treat gays or unmarried women based on their religious beliefs may now have to refuse to artificially inseminate all women. A similar situation arose when Calif. courts ruled that gays must be allowed to be marry in the state. Right before the ruling, Kern County Clerk Ann Barnett decided to discontinue performance of all marriage ceremonies citing a “lack of staff and space.” The office of the Clerk continues to provide marriage licenses, but reported that it no longer had the resources to solemnize marriages. A member of Barnett’s staff said that the clerk “fully expected to be sued” for her decision.

Reference: The Supreme Court ruling and the Unruh Act

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