California Supreme Court Case Pits Civil Rights Against Freedom of Religion

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The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in San Francisco in a case that pits freedom of religion against civil rights. KPCC's Julie Small says the case involves doctors who refused to artificially inseminate a lesbian patient.

Julie Small: Guadalupe Benitez wanted to have children. She's a lesbian, and decided the way to go was artificial insemination. Her insurance covered various fertility treatments at North Coast Women's Care in San Diego County. Nine years ago, the doctors there treated Benitez, but when it came time to perform the insemination, one of the doctors refused on religious grounds.

Guadalupe Benitez: I couldn't believe that she was telling me that she couldn't do the procedures for me, because of my sexual orientation. I was very confused, and shocked.

Small: Her attorney, Jennifer Pizer, says the doctor's refusal was shocking and illegal. Pizer is with the LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. LAMBDA lawyers argue cases that involve gay and lesbian rights. Pizer says California law prohibits businesses from discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation, and for good reason.

Jennifer Pizer: All of us can imagine sitting in the chair in the doctor's office, knowing there's a medical need, you're there to get help with a medical need, and being told, "Well, I won't treat you because of who you are. We don't serve your kind. You'll have to go somewhere else."

Small: Kenneth Pedroza is the attorney for North Coast Women's Care. He says a physician has a constitutional right to religious freedom.

Kenneth Pedroza: Do we refrain from enforcing a constitutional right because it's going to be difficult, because it causes us consternation?

Small: Pedroza says North Coast Women's Care referred Benitez to another doctor who was willing to do the artificial insemination. Pedroza says that could provide the model for a compromise in this case.

Doctors could act on their religious beliefs as long as they help patients find the care they need. Pedroza says if the state Supreme Court rules against North Coast...

Pedroza: Physicians that have a conscientious objection that want to live up to their religious belief will stop performing the procedure. And in our world, small medical groups, especially in rural areas, that means that the entire medical group stops performing the procedure.

Small: But LAMBDA attorney Jennifer Pizer says if the court lets doctors pick and choose what services they'll offer to which patients...

Pizer: Then anybody offering a service in a business, whether it's a medical service or a grocery store – they're all covered by the same law – anybody can opt out for their religious reasons to anyone they don't want to serve. So it would cut an enormous hole in this civil rights law that keeps our pluralistic society open to all of us.

Small: The state supreme court will issue a ruling within three months. As for Benitez, she is now the mother of three children: a six-year-old boy and twin girls who are now age two.