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Top Calif. court rules doctors can't deny treatment to gays

Fertility specialists invoked religious beliefs in case

Guadalupe Benitez (right), with her partner, Joanne Clark and their son Gabriel Clark-Benitez. Guadalupe Benitez (right), with her partner, Joanne Clark and their son Gabriel Clark-Benitez. (Denis Poroy/Associated Press Photo)
By Maura Dolan
August 19, 2008
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SAN FRANCISCO - Doctors cannot discriminate against gays and lesbians in medical treatment, even if the procedures being sought conflict with physicians' religious beliefs, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously yesterday.

In the second gay-rights victory this year, the state Supreme Court said religious physicians must obey a state law that bars businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

"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," Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court.

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Guadalupe T. Benitez, a lesbian who lives with her partner in Oceanside, a coastal city 35 miles north of San Diego, and wanted to become pregnant with donated sperm.

Benitez contended that Dr. Christine Brody, an obstetrician at the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, told her that her religious views prevented her from performing an intrauterine insemination on a lesbian.

Another physician at the clinic, Dr. Douglas Fenton, told Benitez that the staff was uncomfortable helping her conceive a child and advised her to find a doctor outside the medical group, Benitez said.

The doctors denied the allegations. Brody said she would not perform the procedure on any unmarried woman, heterosexual or homosexual.

Justice Marvin Baxter, in a separate concurring opinion, said doctors can avoid liability by referring patients who want procedures that conflict with their religion to other physicians in the practice.

A trial court ruled for Benitez, but an appeals court overturned that decision. After the case landed in the state high court, civil libertarian groups sided with Benitez; religious groups, including Jewish rabbis and Islamic clergy, argued that doctors were entitled to disavow treatments that conflicted with their religion.

The ruling was unanimous and a succinct 18 pages, a contrast to the state Supreme Court's 4-3 split in May legalizing marriage between same-sex couples.

Benitez, 36, and now the mother of three, said she has been pursuing her case for 10 years.

"This isn't just a win for me personally and for other lesbian women," she said. "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.

"It was an awful thing to go through," Benitez said. "It was very painful - the fact that you have someone telling you they will not help you because of who you are, that they will deny your right to be a mother and have a family."

Benitez has given birth to three children through artificial insemination - Gabriel, 6, and twin daughters, Sophia and Shane, who turn 3 this weekend.

Jennifer Pizer, Benitez's attorney, said that the ruling was "a victory for public health" and that she expected it to have nationwide influence.

"It was clear and emphatic that discrimination has no place in doctors' offices," Pizer said.

Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, said the decision might be appealed to the US Supreme Court.

He said the ruling would spur voters "to recognize the radical agenda of our opposition" and support a November ballot initiative that would amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage in California.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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