Calif. Court Puts Gays' Care Over Doctors' Faith

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By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 18 -- Doctors may not refuse medical treatment to gay men or lesbians for religious reasons, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday.

The court ruled that physicians' constitutional right to the free exercise of religion does not exempt businesses that serve the public from following state law that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

That holds true, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote in the 18-page decision, "even if compliance poses an incidental conflict with the defendants' religious beliefs."

If a doctor wants to refuse a service because of religious beliefs, the court found, he or she must refuse all patients, or provide a doctor who can provide the service to everyone.

The decision, three months after the same court struck down a ban on same-sex marriage, stems from a lawsuit filed by Guadalupe "Lupita" Benítez, who said her doctors and their employer, a San Diego-based fertility clinic, refused her a standard fertility treatment because of her sexual orientation. The doctors, who are Christian, said that they denied the treatment because Benítez was unmarried, and that they were allowed to do so under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Benítez sought the treatment in 1999 after two years of trying to conceive using an at-home insemination kit. When she informed her doctor, Christine Brody, of her orientation, Brody replied that she could not perform intrauterine insemination, should it later be required.

What violated Brody's beliefs is disputed. Benítez asserts that Brody said it was her sexual orientation; Brody says she cited Benítez's marital status.

Benítez began treatment with the understanding that another doctor in the same medical group would be available to do the procedure. But eventually she was referred by a second doctor, Douglas Fenton, to another medical group.

An attorney for Brody and Fenton says the referral was prompted by a mix-up in Benítez's chart. Had it not been for the miscommunication, staff doctors could have performed Benítez's procedure, the lawyer said.

Jennifer C. Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal who is representing Benítez, said that while the law protects doctors who refuse certain treatments on religious grounds, it does not allow them to do so on a discriminatory or selective basis.

A trial court sided with Benítez in 2004, ruling that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California's anti-discrimination laws. An appeals court overturned that decision one year later, finding that the previous ruling had denied the doctors' religious rights. Monday's decision voided that ruling.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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