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California Supreme Court: Doctors Can't Refuse Treatment to Gays Based on Religion

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Doctors may not use their religious beliefs as justification for refusing to treat gays and lesbians, the California Supreme Court yesterday. The decision arose from a case involving a lesbian who wanted to become pregnant through artificial insemination. KPCC's Frank Stoltze has more.

Frank Stoltze: Seven years ago, Guadalupe Benitez of Oceanside went to North Coast Women's Care Medical Group for fertility treatment. Two doctors gave her fertility drugs and showed her how to inseminate herself at home. But they told Benitez that their Christian beliefs prevented them from inseminating her themselves.

In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court said their refusal violated a California law that bans businesses from arbitrarily discriminating against clients. Justice Joyce Kennard wrote that the doctors could claim neither a free speech right nor a religious exemption from the law. Nan Hunter is with UCLA's Williams Institute, which specializes in sexual orientation law and public policy.

Nan Hunter: I think the most important thing coming out of this decision is the court's affirmation that the state of California has a compelling interest in ensuring that its lesbian and gay citizens receive services without discrimination.

Stoltze: Benitez attorney Jennifer Pizer called the ruling a victory for public health. She expected it to have nationwide influence. Robert Tyler, a lawyer representing the doctors, called the ruling part of the court's "radical agenda" to promote "the homosexual lifestyle at the risk of infringing upon the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion."

Tyler predicted that the ruling would rally conservatives to support a November ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, which the state supreme court legalized earlier this year. Hunter of the Williams Institute said the court recognized in its latest ruling that doctors do have the right to refuse to treat patients.

Nan Hunter: The court said they've got really two options to exercise a sincere religious objection: one is they could refuse to perform this procedure for any patient, but they couldn't single out a class of patients. Or secondly, they could ensure that the patient receives the same service, the same access to service, but that the service was provided by another physician in their practice.

Stoltze: In a legal twist, the Supreme Court also ordered a trial court to consider whether the Christian doctors were allowed not to inseminate Benitez because she was unmarried. Two years ago, the state added martial status to its anti-discrimination law, but Benitez had sought treatment five years before that. Benitez has since given birth to three children, a boy and twin daughters. She's raising them with her longtime partner.