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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://www.xanga.com/Andrea_TheNerd The Nerd

    I’ve totally refused job offers after doing more research, and being ethically opposed to the position. (Insurance Office = Shady)

    I hope this kind of “radical” rationality spreads across the nation. We’ve gotten far too used to oppressive religious organizations calling the shots.

  • MisterDomino

    Wait, I’m confused.

    Their objection was based on religious grounds, but was it because they thought homosexuality is wrong or that artificial insemination is wrong?

  • Juan Felipe

    I guess it was the homosexuality thing, since “the case (…) pitted gay advocacy groups against religious and medical organizations.”, but if the doctor had been catholic the objection would have been based on both!

    These are very good news indeed, lets hope (pray? XD) we keep hearing about cases like this one.

  • Polly

    I agree with the decision.

    It was a case of discrimination against gays.
    If they had had a problem with the procedure itself (which is unlikely if they are fertility specialists) that would have been different. Being a doctor doesn’t mean you HAVE to do anything anyone wants.

    Of course, private hospitals can set their own policies within legal limits. And doctors are free to reject them by working elsewhere.

    When it comes to county or other state-provided facilities, as long as the procedures are not illegal, I would assume a doctor would be expected to perform them.

  • Joffan

    I assume that the fertility clinic had contracted to provide a range of services, which must have included artificial insemination. Once they agree to deliver that service, they can’t then refuse to provide it based on medically irrelevant characteristics of the patient. Presumably they could decline to provide a contracted service that had some prospect of harming the patient.

    If artificial insemination was not part of a particular clinic’s contract, and the doctors refused that procedure for everyone, then I would have agreed with the doctors’ decision. I do not believe that starting a family is a right in a sufficiently strong sense that medical support for conception is automatic.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    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.

    I agree completely and cannot, for the life of me, figure out why some people have such a hard time with it. The other side of the coin is that employers can also fire employees who refuse to perform their duties. Of course, many employers probably want to avoid being accused of religious persecution, so they allow employees to impose their wills on the company as well as the clients.

  • Lunacrous

    A good step in the right direction, toward the ideal of “No Religious Exemptions from Any Laws.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    If anyone’s interested to see the reaction from the non-reality-based side, here it is: “California Supreme Court Rules Doctors Must Provide Treatment That Violates Their Religious Beliefs“. An excerpt:

    A press release from the Capitol Resource Institute, a California family policy advocacy group, said, “The California Supreme Court’s decision proves that these activist judges are willing to deny our First Amendment religious freedom in order to create rights for homosexuals.”

  • Juan Felipe

    “Dr. Brody, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the clinic, said she would not perform an intrauterine insemination on Guadalupe, a lesbian who lives with her partner and wanted to become pregnant with donated sperm, stating she would not perform the procedure on any unmarried woman, regardless of sexual orientation.”

    Jeez, what the hell is this women doing as a fertility specialist? “She is not married” sounds like a poor excuse for someone whit her work, I would bet she just doesn’t wants to admit that her decision was based on the sexuality orientation of her patient.

  • bestonnet

    Religious exemptions from compulsory voting laws are actually a good idea so there are some things they should get out of.

    A lot of religious conversions have been due to economic motivations with a favoured religion being given its holy days as designated days of rest (instead of having its members forced to choose between work or church) along with often letting those in that religion get out of onerous duties. Unequal taxation has also been a big factor and still is today even in ‘secular’ countries with religions getting their undeserved tax exemptions.

  • Christopher

    Juan Felipe,

    “Jeez, what the hell is this women doing as a fertility specialist? “She is not married” sounds like a poor excuse for someone whit her work, I would bet she just doesn’t wants to admit that her decision was based on the sexuality orientation of her patient.”

    And even if it’s true, who is she to decide unmarried couples can’t have children? It’s just a piece of paper with way too much value ascribed to it – I personally would like to see that institution of “marraige” die within my lifetime.

  • Christopher

    bestonnet,

    “Unequal taxation has also been a big factor and still is today even in ‘secular’ countries with religions getting their undeserved tax exemptions.”

    I personally think that other religious institutions should follow the example of the Church of Satan – admit that they’re running a business and pay their damn taxes! It’s interesting to see how Levey and co. have more integrity than those who are supposed defenders of the “truth…”

  • Ben

    How the hell did these people get through med school? dont you have to take biology classes? that usually weeds out the radicals.

  • bestonnet

    For medicine you can probably get through it pretty easily without accepting evolution (and in the few classes that would have evolution just giving the answer the lecturer wants would work) although someone with a medical degree would be in a better position to answer that.

    People have been known to get biology degrees while being creationalist and some (very few) biologists end up becoming creationalist so it’s not really unexpected that creationalists would slip through the cracks in a medical degree that is more focused on how humans are right now than on how we (and all the other animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, etc) came to be.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    We actually know that some creationists try to get biology degrees in service of Jesus (or Rev. Moon) so that their anti-science opinions will be seen to have more weight.

  • Dan

    Juan Felipe I think your absolutely right that the whole not providing artificial insemination to un-married people is just an excuse to hide her homophobic stance. I seriously doubt that she asks to see the marriage certificate of her clients. Besides who is she to decide that single people and unmarried couples are not allowed to have children.

    All those calling for individual religious exemptions for things like this or for pharmacist who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control need to get a clue. You do not have a right to impose your religion on someone else or use your religion as an excuse for violating the law and not do your job. If your religious views prohibit you from doing your job than you picked the wrong career path. As one of the commentators said – “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.” If a vegetarian took a job as a waitress at a steak house and refused to serve meat or any meat product she would be fired and no one would even think for one second that she had the right to refuse to do her job because of her beliefs. The same would be true for a pacifist who enlisted in the military and the said he or she would have no part in killing people or attacking anything whether it be as a soldier, mechanic, or analyst. The same is true with religion you are entitled to your religious beliefs just as your entitled to be a vegetarian or pacifist but you cannot use those beliefs to discriminate or refuse to do your job.