Lynn v. Sekulow

Today the Supreme Court of California issued an extremely important decision in a case which addressed the issue: does the right of religious freedom exempt a medical clinic’s physicians from complying with a state law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The court’s answer was a resounding “no”.

In this case, a woman named Guadalupe Benitez tried to use the facilities of her insurance company designated fertility clinic to become pregnant.  When Benitez mentioned that she was a lesbian, her doctor said that her religious beliefs would preclude her from performing certain kinds of medical intervention which might be necessary.  Eventually, Benitez went to a different medical practice group and did conceive through in vitro fertilization.

The lawsuit argued that the first medical group had violated California’s anti-discrimination laws–which prohibit any business from denying “full services” based on factors including sexual orientation.  The doctors’ group claimed that the federal and state guarantees of freedom of religion exempted it from the scope of the civil rights law.

The California court noted that the United States Supreme Court in several decisions in the l990s found that there is “no federal constitutional right to an exemption from a neutral and valid law of general applicability on the ground that compliance with that law is contrary to the objector’s religious beliefs”.  In other words, if the state had any legitimate reason to pass a law, even if it was not a very compelling one, the religious objector loses any constitutional claim for exemption.  Even I think that test is too harsh in some cases, but certainly not in this one.  Moreover, the court here looked to its own state constitution and found that even if it required finding a “compelling” interest in the anti-discrimination laws, that interest was present in the need to guarantee all citizens equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation.

If doctors can refuse to perform any and all procedures they find objectionable on religious grounds, they have a very real veto power over the conscientious decisions of their patients which may themselves be based on religious or moral beliefs.

The California court also dealt clearly with the physicians’ group claim that performing the procedure at issue would violate their free speech rights, a kind of symbolic affirmation of the morality of the procedure.  The court repeated language from one of its earlier cases that “simple obediance to the law that does not require one to convey a verbal or symbolic message cannot reasonably be seen as a statement of suppport for the law or its purpose.”

This case illustrates once again that the membership of a state’s highest court can be as vital as the composition of the United States Supreme Court on preserving fundamental civil liberties and human rights.

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