No Religious Exemptions from Discrimination Laws

Via ABC, this good news: the California Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that doctors cannot deny patients medical care on religious grounds. The case involved two Christian doctors, working at a fertility clinic, who had refused to perform artificial insemination on a lesbian:

Guadalupe Benitez, now 36, had maintained that the California medical clinic that was treating her polycystic ovary syndrome had “dumped” her when she asked for artificial insemination.

In 1999, after a year of surgeries and hormone treatments — all covered by insurance — Benitez was finally ready to get pregnant. But at the crucial moment, her doctor refused to do the procedure for “religious” reasons.

…Also named in the suit were two of the clinic’s doctors — Dr. Doug Fenton and Dr. Christine Brody — who lawyers say had a constitutional right to refuse a procedure that violated their religious beliefs.

As the story explains, Benitez and her partner have since had three children – but they had to pay for fertility treatment at their own expense, because the clinic they ultimately found to perform the procedure was not a member of their health plan. I don’t know if this ruling will reimburse them for those medical costs, although it should; but at the very least, it has established a powerful and obviously correct precedent that a person’s religious beliefs do not grant them an exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

During the civil rights era, many whites justified their oppressive and prejudiced treatment of blacks on the grounds that racial minorities were foreordained by God to be inferior. I doubt that anyone claiming a religious right to discriminate against blacks would be given even a moment’s consideration today. Yet the same ugly, appalling reasoning is still used by bigots who claim that God gives them the right to hate, and who are willfully blind to the truth that gays and lesbians are human beings deserving of all the same rights – including the right to start a family – as the rest of us.

I’m astounded that such a claim would ever be seriously advanced, even by a religious fundamentalist, but it’s still a good sign that the court unequivocally rejected it. The law is clear: doctors can and should be free to exercise their professional judgment in deciding what treatment is medically appropriate; but they cannot arbitrarily deny treatment based on medically irrelevant characteristics of the patient.

This case partakes of the same twisted reasoning used by pharmacists who think they should have the right to deny their customers access to drugs whose use they disagree with. An even more virulent form of insane stupidity is displayed by female Muslim doctors who claim that it violates their religious beliefs to wash up before surgery. This reasoning, and not just in the Muslims’ case, is a clear and present danger: it prioritizes rigid adherence to irrational superstition over the lives and well-being of actual human beings. This firm ruling against these practices is a welcome one, but it doesn’t go far enough. This needs to be a criminal matter and not just a civil one: any doctor who refuses on religious grounds to perform a necessary medical procedure needs to be immediately sanctioned and barred from further practice of medicine.

The solution to these fundamentalists’ dilemma, as I’ve written before, is a simple one. If your religious beliefs would interfere with your ability to perform the duties of a job, then you are free to seek a different job. You are not free to take the job and refuse to do it while whining about religious persecution. Individual, adult believers are free to subject themselves to whatever religious rules they see fit – but we live in a secular society, and no one should be permitted to impose their personal dogmas on all the rest of us.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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