State Supreme Court Rules On Lesbian Insemination Case

Court: Docs Can't Withhold Care From Homosexuals

In a ruling stemming from a lawsuit brought by an Oceanside woman against two North County doctors, the California Supreme Court Monday ruled that medical treatment to gay patients may not be denied based on a physician's religious beliefs.

The ruling reverses a lower-court decision and clears the way for trial in San Diego Superior Court of the action brought by Guadalupe Benitez against the physicians -- Douglas Fenton and Christine Brody -- and their medical group.

In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that Benitez -- who was being treated for infertility -- was entitled to be treated like other patients with the same condition, and that constitutional protections for religious liberty do not excuse unlawful discrimination.

"It's taken nearly 10 years to get to this point, but it was worth it," said Benitez, now 36 and a mother of three. "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," Benitez 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."

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

The case began in 1999, when Benitez was referred for infertility care to North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, which had an exclusive contract with Benitez' insurance plan.

After 11 months of preparatory treatments, she was told a doctor would not perform donor insemination for her because she is a lesbian. At least one doctor claimed a right to opt out of California's civil rights law because they hold fundamentalist Christian view and they object to treating a lesbian patient as they treat others.

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

The 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego reviewed that ruling and decided in the doctors' favor. Today's ruling sends the case back to a trial court in San Diego.

"These doctors happened to have strongly held religious beliefs about gay people," said Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, who argued the case in the California Supreme Court for Benitez. "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."

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