Supreme Court Says Doctors Can’t Deny Treatment to Gays
On Monday, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that doctors cannot assert religion or free speech as an exemption to state anti-discrimination laws, the San Jose Mercury News reports (Swift, San Jose Mercury News, 8/19).
The ruling comes in a case in which physicians from North Coast Women's Care in San Diego County were accused of refusing to provide insemination services to Guadalupe Benitez because she was a lesbian (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 8/19).
Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton, the doctors named as defendants in the case, said they refused to provide the service to Benitez because she was unmarried, not because she was a lesbian (Moran, San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/19).
Fenton referred Benitez to another medical group for services, but Benitez had to pay thousands of dollars more for treatment because the other provider was outside of her health plan's network, according to her attorneys (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/19).
An attorney for Brody and Fenton said that the referral stemmed from a mistake in Benitez's chart and that physicians at North Coast Women's Care would have performed the insemination otherwise.
A trial court sided with Benitez in 2004, but an appeals court overturned the judgment a year later, concluding that the earlier ruling violated doctors' religious rights.
The state Supreme Court invalidated the appeals court's ruling (Surdin, Washington Post, 8/19).
In the majority opinion, Justice Joyce Kennard wrote, "The First Amendment's right to the free exercise of religion does not exempt defendant physicians here from conforming their conduct to the ... antidiscrimination requirements" (Dolan, Boston Globe, 8/19).
Kennard wrote that the state's anti-discrimination law "furthers California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/19).
Under the court's ruling, if physicians deny services because of religious beliefs, physicians must decline to provide the service to all patients or provide a doctor who will provide the service (Washington Post, 8/19).
However, the ruling does permit physicians to raise religious beliefs as a defense at trial if those beliefs influenced them from providing insemination services to Benitez for reasons other than her sexuality (Dolan, Los Angeles Times, 8/19).
When North Coast Women's Care doctors declined to inseminate Benitez, California's antidiscrimination law did not specifically ban discrimination based on marital status. That provision was added to the law in 2006 (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/19).
The California Supreme Court ruling clears the way for Benitez's case to go to trial (Los Angeles Times, 8/19).
However, attorneys for the clinic and two doctors said they were considering appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jennifer Pizer of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Benitez, said the ruling is the first in the nation to address doctors' religious objections to treating gay or lesbian patients.
Ken Pedroza, a lawyer for the physicians, said the decision could affect other areas where physicians' religious views conflict with medical treatment, including end-of-life care (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/19).
On Monday, KPCC's "Patt Morrison" featured a discussion on the court ruling (Morrison, "Patt Morrison," KPCC, 8/18).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.