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Court Watch: Implications of California Supreme Court’s Marriage Decision

In its controversial 4-3 decision on marriage, the California Supreme Court also decided, for the first time anywhere in the United States, that as a matter of state constitutional law, sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” deserving of heightened protection.

The legal repercussions of this case are yet to be known. However, we may soon have the chance to evaluate how far this liberal court is willing to go in advancing a progressive social agenda and undermining the right of the people to decide important issues and govern themselves. A case currently before the court and dealing with healthcare rights of conscience may provide that opportunity.

In North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group v. Superior Court (Benitez) (Case No. S 142892), Ms. Benitez, an unmarried lesbian, filed suit when two Christian physicians at North Coast would not artificially inseminate her because of her marital status. Ms. Benitez filed suit even though the physicians referred her to an alternative provider (who successfully performed the procedure) and paid the costs associated with her transfer to the new provider.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Ms. Benitez claims the physicians refused to treat her because she is a lesbian and argues that their decision amounts to illegal discrimination. Further, Ms. Benitez and her attorneys have also argued that the physicians have no right to assert their consciences as a defense to the claims in the lawsuit.

A lower court disagreed and, in December 2006, ruled that the physicians had every right to assert their constitutionally-protected rights of conscience as a defense in the case. Ms. Benitez appealed and this issue is now before the California Supreme Court.

Thus, this case now pits the long-established federal and state constitutional rights of healthcare providers to practice according to their consciences against the new determination of the California Supreme Court that sexual orientation is entitled to heightened legal protection.

At worst, the court could use its analysis in the marriage case to undermine healthcare rights of conscience. Specifically, the court could find that a physician’s right of conscience is trumped by the right of patients to demand certain procedures. In doing so, the Court would likely find that medicine is not a service but a commodity and that the patient is entitled to receive what he or she wants without regard to the physician’s ethics, morals or religious beliefs.

This would be an unprecedented and incredibly dangerous decision for patients and healthcare providers, ultimately undermining the quality and availability of healthcare in California while eviscerating important constitutional rights.

For more information on healthcare rights of conscience click here.

To review the brief that Americans United for Life filed in support of the physicians in the Benitez case click here.