Monday, August 18, 2008

CA High Court: Doctors Cannot Assert Free Exercise In Refusing IUI Treatment For Lesbian

Today in North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, Inc. v. San Diego County Superior Court, (CA Sup. Ct., Aug. 18, 2008), the California Supreme Court held unanimously that a medical clinic's physicians are prohibited by the Unruh Civil Rights Act from discriminating against patients on the basis of sexual orientation. They may not rely on the free exercise provisions of the U.S. or California constitutions to assert an exemption from that prohibition.

In the case, two clinic physicians refused, on religious grounds, to perform intrauterine insemination for Guadalupe Benitez, an unmarried lesbian patient. The court held that under the 1st Amendment, no religious exemption is mandated because the Unruh Civil Rights Act is a neutral law of general application. The court said it need not decide whether the California constitution imposes greater protection for religious beliefs, because even under a strict scrutiny standard defendants' assertion fails. Since the Unruh Civil Rights Act requires merely "full and equal" access, the physicians could either refuse to perform the procedure for any clinical patients, or refer patients to other physicians employed by the clinic who do not have the same religious objections. The court said that defendants are still free at trial to prove that their religious objections related to the fact that Benitez was unmarried, rather than the fact she was a lesbian.

Justice Baxter concurred, but argued that the balance of competing interests might come out differently in the case of a physician in sole practice. He said: "At least where the patient could be referred with relative ease and convenience to another practice, I question whether the state’s interest in full and equal medical treatment would compel a physician in sole practice to provide a treatment to which he or she has sincere religious objections." The San Diego Union Tribune reports on the decision. (See prior related posting.)