California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Lambda Legal Lesbian Client Denied Infertility Treatment by Christian Fundamentalist Doctors

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"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."
August 18, 2008

(San Francisco, August 18, 2008) — The California Supreme Court has ruled that a group of doctors cannot use their religion as a legal excuse for violating the civil rights of their former patient — an Oceanside lesbian — to whom they refused an infertility treatment based on their religious views about her sexual orientation.

In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that Guadalupe "Lupita" Benitez was entitled to be treated like other patients with her same health problem, and that constitutional protections for religious liberty do not excuse unlawful discrimination. Writing for the court, Justice Kennard said: "...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 antidiscrimination obligations, thus precluding any such establishment or its agents from telling patrons that it will not comply with the Act."

"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."

The case began in 1999, when Guadalupe "Lupita" Benítez was referred for infertility care to North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, which had an exclusive contract with Benitez's insurance plan. After eleven months of preparatory treatments, including medication and unnecessary surgery, her doctors finally admitted they would not perform donor insemination for her because she is a lesbian. The doctors claimed a right to opt out of California's civil rights law because they hold fundamentalist Christian views and they object to treating a lesbian patient as they treat others.

In late 2004, Benítez won a legal ruling in the trial court saying doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California's antidiscrimination laws and treat all patients equally, whatever the doctors' religious beliefs may be; in other words, if they provide a treatment to some patients, they must provide it equally to all patients based on medical standards, without discriminating. The doctors asked the Court of Appeal in San Diego to review that ruling and that court decided in the doctors' favor. The California Supreme Court then granted review.

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

Jennifer C. Pizer is the lead attorney on the case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by co-counsel Jon B. Eisenberg, a leading appellate specialist, Robert Welsh, Seph McNamara and Lee Fink of O'Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles, and Albert Gross of Solana Beach, CA.

The case is Benitez v. North Coast Women's Care Medical Group.

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Contact: Jason Howe, Office: 213-382-7600 ext.247; Email: jhowe@lambdalegal.org

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