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Doctors Can't Refuse Gays Treatment, Calif. Supreme Court Rules

By L.K. Regan

Here's an update on a gay rights story that RealJock reported on earlier this year. California's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state's anti-discrimination laws prevent doctors from using religious beliefs as a reason for refusing to treat gay and lesbian patients. The court's unanimous decision advances the case of Guadalupe Benitez, 36, of Oceanside, who was denied treatment at a fertility clinic when the practicing physicians discovered she was a lesbian.

Benitez had sought artificial insemination at North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, part of the Vista network, in 2001. She testified that the doctors there gave her fertility drugs and advice on how to artificially inseminate herself, but refused to perform the procedure themselves, instead referring her to another clinic. Benitez sued under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, a law that prevents for-profit businesses from arbitrarily discriminating against customers. As the law states, ""All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, or medical condition are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever." The law was crafted to prevent service-oriented businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, but has been expanded in recent years by both the California legislature and legal interpretation to cover discrimination on the basis of other factors, such as age or sexual orientation. Under the law, the physicians' group is considered a business, and its compliance with the Act is obligatory.

North Coast defended itself on free speech grounds, arguing that the state and federal constitutions guaranteed them the right to both free speech and free practice of their religion. At stake is the question of what the law protects in terms of free practice: The doctors claim they refused treatment because of Benitez's unmarried status; she claims it was because of her sexual orientation.

Justice Joyce Kennard wrote in the court's decision that the state law "furthers California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation." There are still ways that practitioners can avoid performing procedures to which they have objection. As the opinion states, "To avoid any conflict between their religious beliefs and the state Unruh Civil Rights Act's antidiscrimination provisions, defendant physicians can simply refuse to perform the…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…receives 'full and equal' access to that medical procedure through a North Coast physician lacking defendants' religious objections." In other words, turn down everyone or no one, or find another doctor within the practice to do the procedure.

This ruling means that, when Benitez's civil lawsuit comes to trial, the physicians will have to limit themselves to claiming a religious objection to Benitez's procedure based only on her unmarried status, as this was not a protected category in 2001, where, according to the justices, sexual orientation was and is. If she can prove they discriminated against her on the basis of her sexual orientation—and she believes she can—they will not be able to offer the defense that that choice is protected as religious practice, and the physicians may be held liable for unlawful discrimination.

The implications of the ruling are substantial, not only for gay rights within California, the most populous U.S. state, but also for the contentious debate about abortion. Much of the ruling's language about a practice's obligation to use a single standard in determining which procedures to perform will extend to abortion provide