Court victory over Christian doctors for lesbian mother

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A lesbian denied infertility treatment by her doctors on the grounds of their religious beliefs has won a case against them in California’s Supreme Court.

The nine-year legal battle began in 1999 when Ms Guadalupe Benitez was refused artificial insemination, after eleven months of preparatory treatments and unnecessary surgery.

Doctors at North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group claimed that they had the right to opt of California’s civil rights law because of their Christian views regarding gays and lesbians.

Ms Benitez’s lawsuit was thrown out of state court initially, but she won an appeal in 2003 that said that patients can sue health care providers who discriminate based on their sexual orientation, and federal law does not exempt health care providers from state civil rights laws.

In late 2004, Ms Benitez won a legal ruling in the trial court saying that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California’s anti discrimination laws and treat all patients equally, whatever the doctors’ personal religious beliefs may be.

The doctors then won an appeal against the ruling, but the decision was again overturned in yesterday’s court case.

Writing for court, the judge, Justice Kennard, said:

“The defendant physicians contend that exposing them to liability for refusing to perform the IUI medical procedure for plaintiff infringes upon their First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

“Not so. As we noted earlier, California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act imposed on business establishments certain anti-discrimination obligations, thus precluding any such establishment or its agents from telling patrons that it will not comply with the Act.”

Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal who argued Ms Benitez’s case, said:

“These doctors happened to have strongly held religious beliefs about gay people.

“There’s a great diversity of religious beliefs in California, and they’re all protected – but not to the point where laws are violated and other people are hurt.

“Each of us is protected both in our religious beliefs and also from religiously-based discrimination in the doctor’s office and other commercial settings.”

Ms Benitez, who is now 36 and mother to three children, said:

“It’s taken nearly 10 years to get to this point, but it was worth it.

“It’s wrong and shocking that some doctors felt their religious beliefs allowed them to ignore the law and discriminate.

“This isn’t just a win for me personally and for other lesbian women.

“It’s a win for everyone, because anyone could be the next target if doctors are allowed to pick and choose their patients based on religious views about other groups of people.”

Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBT and HIV-positive people through impact litigation, education and public policy work.