North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group v. San Diego County Superior Court, Guadalupe T. Benitez, Real Party in Interest, Supreme Court of California, United States (18 August 2008)
The plaintiff sued a medical clinic and two of its employee physicians (Brody and Fenton), alleging that their refusal to perform intrauterine insemination violated her right to be free from discrimination. The defendants argued that their right to the free exercise of religion was an affirmative defence. The Superior Court of San Diego County granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary adjudication of the defendants’ affirmative defence. The Court of Appeal then granted a petition for writ of mandate with regard to the two employee physicians. The plaintiff petitioned for review, which the Supreme Court granted.
In 1999 the plaintiff and her partner, a lesbian couple, consulted Dr Brody at the North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group. They sought help with artificial insemination. Dr Brody contended that she had told the plaintiff that, because of her fertility problems, she might have to consider intrauterine insemination (a procedure in which a physician inserts sperm directly into the plaintiff’s uterus), but that she herself would not perform the procedure on religious grounds, because the plaintiff was unmarried. Dr Brody also said she told the plaintiff that another doctor, Dr Fenton, shared her religious objections but two other doctors at the Medical Group could perform the procedure.
After several attempts to use alternative fertility treatments, the plaintiff opted for intrauterine insemination. Dr Brody was on vacation at the time and the plaintiff was assigned to the care of Dr Fenton, who also had a religious objection to preparing intrauterine insemination for the plaintiff. The other doctors available were not licensed to perform the procedure. The plaintiff was referred to a physician outside the Medical Group where, after a series of complications, she was able to conceive. She then sought damages and injunctive relief, alleging that the two physicians at the Medical Group had refused to perform the procedure because they objected on religious grounds to helping a same-sex couple conceive.
Whether the physicians’ right to freedom of religion and free speech, protected by both the federal and Californian constitutions, exempted them from complying with statutory prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
California Constitution, Article I (4) (“Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed”).
United States Constitution, 1st Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech … ”).
Unruh Civil Rights Act, Section 51(a) (interpreting non-discrimination provision, through a series of judicial decisions, to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation).
Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court, Supreme Court of California, United States, 2004.
Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, United States Supreme Court, 1993 (“a law that is neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice”).
Employment Div., Ore. Dept. of Human Res. v. Smith, United States Supreme Court, 1990 (overturning several prior freedom of religion cases, because the 1st Amendment’s right to free exercise of religion did not affect the obligation to comply with a “valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes)”).
Reasoning of the Court
The Court reviewed United States Supreme Court case law and concluded that religious objectors had “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 belief.” Specifically, the California Supreme Court had adopted the test from Employment Div., Ore. Dept. of Human Res. v. Smith, that a law, which applied generally and neutrally to all persons and which concerned a matter that the State was allowed to regulate, was constitutional. The Court also referred to Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, which held that if the law was neutral and general it did not need to be justified on the grounds of a compelling government interest, even if the law imposed a minor burden on religious practices.
Next, the Court established that the Unruh Civil Rights Act was valid and neutral because it demanded equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation, and therefore the 1st Amendment’s right to the free exercise of religion did not exempt the defendant doctors “from conforming their conduct to the [Unruh] Act’s anti-discrimination requirements even if compliance poses as an incidental conflict with defendants’ religious beliefs.” The Court quoted Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court, which found that: “[F]or purposes of the free speech clause, simple obedience to a law that does not require one to convey a verbal or symbolic message cannot reasonably be seen as a statement of support for the law or its purpose. Such a rule would, in effect, permit each individual to choose which laws he would obey merely by declaring his agreement or opposition.” The Court also stated that the defendants could have either refused to perform the intrauterine insemination for all patients; or could have ensured the availability of a physician who was qualified to perform the procedure.
The Supreme Court held that the trial court’s original ruling, that dismissed the defendants’ argument (that their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion exempted them from compliance with the prohibition of discrimination against sexual orientation), was correct. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.