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Gays may get another court win

State justices appear ready to end doctors' right to deny patient care because of their religious beliefs.

May 29, 2008|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Two weeks after deciding same-sex couples are entitled to marry, the California Supreme Court appeared ready Wednesday to rule that physicians have no constitutional right to refuse medical treatment to gays on grounds it would violate their religious beliefs.

The justices' inclination emerged as the state high court heard arguments in a case that pits the religious freedom of physicians against the right of gays to be free from discrimination.

Several justices suggested during Wednesday's hearing that they would rule that religion was not a legal justification for two Christian physicians in San Diego County who declined to perform an intrauterine insemination for Lupita Benitez, a lesbian who sought to become pregnant in 1999.

Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who voted against same-sex marriage, appeared strongly in favor of Benitez's right to medical treatment.

Corrigan noted that the physicians were running a business.

She added that if they did not want to perform certain procedures, they could take up a different line of work.

She questioned whether it was appropriate for a doctor to tell a patient, "I am not going to do it for you because of who you are."

Chief Justice Ronald M. George suggested that the issue was not about whether doctors could refuse to perform a procedure at all but whether certain patients could be deprived a treatment that others received.

He asked a lawyer for the doctors whether they could refuse to treat patients of their ethnic backgrounds.

"Would that pass muster?" he asked.

Kenneth R. Pedroza, who represented the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group in Vista, said he was unaware of any religious beliefs that would justify disparate treatment for people of different ethnic backgrounds.

But if a doctor had such a sincerely held religious belief, then "the answer would seem to be yes," Pedroza told George.

Jennifer C. Pizer, who represented Benitez for Lambda Legal, told the court that doctors may not decide which patients can receive certain treatments.

"If a service is being offered to some, it needs to be offered to others in a nondiscriminatory way," Pizer said.

Benitez said in her lawsuit that the doctors told her that their religious views and those of the staff prevented them from artificially inseminating her with a donor's semen.

She contends that their decision forced her to spend thousands of dollars for an out-of-network doctor who performed other procedures to help her get pregnant.

According to her lawsuit, Dr. Christine Brody, who gave Benitez medication to help conceive a child from donated sperm, told her she did not approve of lesbians having children and would not perform the insemination procedure.

While Brody was on vacation, Benitez saw another physician, Dr. Douglas Fenton, who refused to renew her prescription for the medication, told her the staff was uncomfortable about helping her get pregnant and advised her to see a physician outside the group, Benitez said.

The doctors contend that their religious objections dealt with unmarried women, not only with lesbians, and that the state Constitution protects their right to exercise religious choices.

Benitez, 36, and her partner of 18 years, Joanne Clark, 49, now have three children conceived with medical help and donated semen.

In a brief interview after arguments, Benitez said she desperately wanted to bear a child and thought that the doctors believed that she was "not worthy of becoming a mother."

"It does a great deal of damage to a person when you are discriminated against," Benitez said.

A Court of Appeal in San Diego ruled for the doctors, and Benitez appealed.

If the state high court rules that doctors may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the case would go to trial to determine whether Benitez was discriminated against because of her sexual orientation or because of her unmarried status.

The doctors argue that state law did not bar discrimination based on marital status at the time Benitez was their patient.

California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and several civil liberties and gay rights groups have sided with Benitez while religious groups, including some rabbis and Islamic clergy, have argued that doctors have a right to refuse to provide treatment that conflicts with their religious views.

The California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in a groundbreaking May 15 decision that extended to sexual orientation the same broad protections against bias previously applied to race, gender and religion.

Opponents have asked the court to stay the ruling until voters decide an initiative heading for the November ballot that would amend the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex unions.

The effective date of the same-sex marriage ruling may be extended to mid-July or even mid-August as the court considers the stay request, court officials said.

The court's decision in the medical case, North Coast Women's Care vs. Superior Court, is expected within 90 days.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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