Two Vista doctors can argue to a jury that they did not violate an Oceanside lesbian’s civil rights when they refused to artificially inseminate her, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The doctors may argue that their religious beliefs prohibited them from artificially inseminating any unmarried women regardless of their sexual orientation, the court ruled. The state’s 4th District Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion in a separate decision in December, but at the request of attorneys for the woman agreed to receive additional legal briefs and reconsider that ruling, resulting in Tuesday’s decision.
The case appears to be the first in the country in which a gay or lesbian patient was allowed to sue doctors over charges that treatment was denied based on sexual orientation.
Guadalupe “Lupita” Benitez of Oceanside sued physicians Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton of the Vista-based North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group in 2001 after the doctors refused to artificially inseminate her.
Benitez alleged the doctors would not inseminate her because she is homosexual, a refusal that constitutes a violation of the state’s civil rights law. Attorneys for the doctors say the physicians would not perform the procedure because Benitez was unmarried. Jennifer Pizer, Benitez’s attorney and senior counsel at Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for lesbian and gay rights, said Wednesday afternoon that she was disappointed in Tuesday’s ruling and will ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
“There’s a freedom to believe,” Pizer said. “You don’t have the freedom to impose your beliefs on other people.”
Carlo Coppo, one of the attorneys for the doctors, said the appeals court has restored “the religious liberty of my clients, so they can go to trial.”
“They felt they were essentially asked to leave their religious liberty at the courthouse steps,” Coppo said. “We didn’t think that was appropriate.”
A judge initially dismissed Benitez’s lawsuit, but a state appeals court reinstated it in 2003.
The 2003 appeals court opinion stated that Benitez alleged that Brody had said she “had religious-based objections” to helping homosexuals conceive children through artificial insemination. Benitez alleged that Brody agreed to provide Benitez fertility treatments, and said another doctor would be able to perform the insemination procedure, the opinion stated.
Coppo has said that Benitez’s sexual orientation was not the basis for the doctors’ decision not to artificially inseminate her.
Brody told Benitez at their first meeting that she would not perform an intrauterine artificial insemination on an unmarried woman —- regardless of whether the woman was homosexual or heterosexual —- because of the doctor’s religious beliefs, but that other doctors in the medical group could do the procedure, Coppo has said.
Coppo has said Brody and Fenton are Christians but that he had not asked them if they belonged to a specific denomination.
The lawsuit reached the state appeals court a second time after a Superior Court judge ruled that the doctors could not argue as a defense at trial that they were exercising their religious liberty when they did not artificially inseminate Benitez.
In the 22-page opinion issued Tuesday, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego ordered the Superior Court to set aside that decision. The appeals court opinion stated that a jury must decide why the doctors would not inseminate Benitez.
The state’s civil rights law, known as the Unruh Act, prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation but did not protect against discrimination based on marital status at the time the insemination was to have occurred, the appeals court opinion stated.
As a result, if a jury decided the doctors refused to artificially inseminate Benitez only because she was not married, Benitez would lose that part of her lawsuit, the appeals court ruled.
The appeals court ruled that the doctors can present evidence that “their religious beliefs prohibited them from performing (intrauterine insemination) on any unmarried woman, regardless of the woman’s sexual orientation.”
After hearing oral arguments in the case in October, state appeals court Associate Justice Gilbert Nares told both sides that he believed the case eventually will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Last modified Wednesday, March 15, 2006 10:45 PM PST; SCOTT MARSHALL – Staff Writer; SAN DIEGO
Contact staff writer Scott Marshall at (760) 631-6623 or [email protected].
The Associated Press contributed to this story.