Lambda Legal Blasts the California Medical Association for Hypocrisy

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"You can't on one hand say that discrimination is bad and then with the other provide a road map for how to deny treatment for a particular group of people."

Date

Date: 
06/03/2005

(Los Angeles, June 3, 2005) — In legal papers filed today Lambda Legal urged a California state appeals court to reject the half truths put forth in a friend-of-the-court brief by the California Medical Association that would allow doctors to discriminate against patients based on the doctors’ religious views. The case at hand involves a woman who was denied fertility treatment by her Southern California health care providers because she is a lesbian.

“The California Medical Association wants it both ways—you can’t on one hand say that discrimination is bad then on the other provide a road map for how to deny treatment for a particular group of people,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles. “CMA’s decision to enter this case in support of discrimination against patients is extremely distressing.”

The North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group and doctors Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton refused to inseminate Guadalupe “Lupita” Benitez after she had received 11 months of preparatory treatment from the clinic. At the critical and brief moment when Benitez needed to be inseminated, both Brody and Fenton said that because of their personal religious beliefs about gay people, they would not administer the treatment Benitez had been promised. In court papers the doctors also say they object to treating unmarried heterosexual women and they claim that their fundamentalist Christian beliefs exempt them from California’s civil rights laws.

Benitez’s lawsuit was thrown out of state court initially, but Benitez won an appeal two years ago which said patients can sue health care providers who discriminate against them based on their sexual orientation, and federal law does not exempt health care providers from state civil rights laws. That unanimous state appeals court decision set an important precedent as the first ruling of its kind in the nation. With that ruling allowing her to proceed, Benitez’ case returned to the trial court, where Lambda Legal now represents her as co-counsel.

Last fall, Benitez won a legal ruling in the trial court saying that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California’s antidiscrimination laws, and treat all patients equally, whatever the doctors’ personal religious beliefs may be. The doctors asked the Court of Appeal in San Diego to review that ruling before trial, and the court ordered both sides to submit briefs.

In May, the California Medical Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the doctors who discriminated against Benitez. The papers filed today by Lambda Legal argue that under the United States and California Constitutions, California state law, guidelines of the American Medical Association and the California Medical Association’s own by-laws, doctors may object to certain procedures based on their own religious beliefs but that they may not object to treating certain groups of people based on those beliefs.

“If a doctor doesn’t want to provide an abortion because she is religiously opposed to the procedure she can do that. But denying treatment to certain types of patients for medically irrelevant reasons — just because your personal view is that only married heterosexuals should receive that care — is fundamentally different,” said Joel Ginsberg, Interim Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

In the brief being filed today, Lambda Legal argues that the doctors and the California Medical Association are mistaken about the law. In a case decided last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that Catholic Charities of Sacramento had to follow state antidiscrimination rules that apply to its business activities. The court explained: “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept of their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” That case was Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court.

Oral argument in the Court of Appeal for Benitez v. North Coast Women’s Medical Care Group has not yet been scheduled.

Jennifer C. Pizer is the lead attorney on the case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by co-counsel Robert Welsh and Margaret Carroll of O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles and Albert Gross of Solana Beach, CA.

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Lisa Hardaway 212-809-8585 ext.266

Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

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