Religious Beliefs May Not Provide an Exception for LGBTQ Discrimination

(Page 2 of 2 of Health Care Antidiscrimination Laws Protecting Gays and Lesbians)

Some health care providers are aware of state antidiscrimination laws, but believe they do not have to provide treatment to LGBTQ patients because their choice not to treat is based on personal religious beliefs. Although none of the state antidiscrimination laws include an exception based on religious beliefs, this issue may not be entirely resolved until it has played out in state courts.

A recent case in California may be an indication of how state courts will rule on this issue. In Benitez v. North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, a fertility clinic refused to provide services to Lupita Benitez because she was a lesbian. The clinic argued that because of its fundamentalist religious views, it was exempt from California's law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Supreme Court of California unanimously ruled that the clinic had to comply with California's antidiscrimination laws, regardless of the clinic's religious beliefs.

Discrimination Against LGBTQ Individuals Leads to Poor Health Care Outcomes

Unfortunately, discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals is pervasive in our health care system. Some providers give different treatment or different levels of treatment to LGBTQ patients, some provide treatment in a hostile environment, and others refuse treatment altogether.

Because of these realities, many gays and lesbians avoid getting preventive care. Others suffer increased stress because of hostile or judgmental environments. The end result is poorer health outcomes for LGBTQ patients than for non-LGBTQ patients—problems go undiagnosed and untreated longer, stress levels cause or exacerbate health problems, and some LGBTQ patients simply cannot get the medical treatment and procedures they need.

What to Do If You Cannot Get Treatment

If you believe a doctor or employee has refused to treat you because you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, you can do any of the following:

  • Explain your concerns to the physician. Provide the doctor with the AMA ethical rules and any appropriate state antidiscrimination law.
  • Report the behavior to another physician—either another doctor in the practice group or another doctor you know.
  • Lodge a complaint through the hospital or group practice's grievance mechanism (not all groups have these).
  • File a complaint with your state medical society or medical licensing board. These organizations have investigative bodies, can review the doctor's conduct, and may be able to take disciplinary action against the physician's medical license.
  • If your complaint is against a hospital or health care organization, contact the American Hospital Association (AHA) or the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO).
  • If your complaint is against a non-physician health care professional (e.g., dentist, psychologist, optometrist, podiatrist, nurse), contact the appropriate professional association and licensing board for that group.
  • Contact an attorney or gay rights organization for help.

To learn more about all the unique legal issues that affect gays and lesbians, get A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples, by Denis Clifford, Frederick Hertz, and Emily Doskow (Nolo).

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