North Coast Women’s Care: California’s Still-Undefined Standard for Protecting Religious Freedom

15 Feb 2010 09:06pm Sumeet Ajmani 

Ever since reproductive technology became widely available to treat fertility problems, some physicians have tried to limit access to this technology for various reasons, including the age, marital status, and sexual orientation of patients. In a landmark ruling, the California Supreme Court recently held that clinic physicians may not deny lesbians access to fertility treatment on the grounds that the procedure violated the physicians’ religious beliefs. The court found that neither the federal nor state constitutional rights to free exercise of religion exempted the doctors from following antidiscrimination provisions in California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act). In reaching this result, the court held that the federal free exercise right did not justify noncompliance with a neutral and generally applicable law. It went on to find that even if the state constitution granted stronger protection, the physicians’ interests in religious freedom still did not overcome the state’s compelling interest in ensuring equal access to reproductive treatment. In so ruling, the court resolved the dispute at hand, but avoided answering the fundamental legal question of what level of protection the California Constitution guarantees for free exercise of religion.

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