The California Supreme Court unanimously held, last Monday, that a doctor's religious beliefs will not be lawful justification for refusing to treat homosexuals. Physicians who have a religious objection to treating homosexuals will be in contravention of anti-discrimination law if they do not provide equal medical services or find a colleague to provide treatment. The ruling is the first in the U.S. to address doctors' religious objections to treating gay or lesbian patients.
Three months ago, the Court overturned the ban on same-sex marriage. Justice Kennard's adamant decision on behalf of the Court is now its second bold move in support of gay rights: 'Do the rights of religious freedom and free speech, as guaranteed in both the federal and the California Constitutions, exempt a medical clinic's physicians from complying with the California Unruh Civil Rights Act's prohibition against discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation? Our answer is no.'
The decision is based on a claim brought by Guadalupe Benitez against the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, a San Diego County fertility clinic, and two of its doctors for refusing to perform artificial insemination on religious grounds. Benitez alleges, she was told that their religious faith prevented them from providing this procedure for a lesbian. Drs Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton, who are fundamentalist Christians, deny they refused the treatment because of her sexual orientation and claim it was because she is unmarried. The laws against discrimination pertaining to marital-status were unclear at that time. However, Benitez began treatment at the clinic in 1999 as part of a 15-year domestic partnership that was legally registered.
After a year of testing and oral medication failed, she opted for intrauterine insemination but was told to go elsewhere. The clinic was the only option offered through her insurance and she had to pay thousands to receive treatment elsewhere. Now 36, Benitez and her partner have three children.
The California Supreme Court has now ruled that doctors' constitutional freedom of religion is 'subservient' to antidiscrimination laws due to 'California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation', Kennard stated.
'This isn't just a win for me personally and for other lesbian women,' Benitez said. 'It's a win for everyone because everyone could be the next target if doctors choose their patients based on religious views about other groups of people.'
The clinic is considering an appeal to the federal Supreme Court and insists that the judgment infringes on the constitutional freedoms of religion and expression. Opponents have criticised the higher court for exercising judicial powers to promote its 'radical agenda'.