In a recent case handed down by the California Supreme Court entitled North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group, Inc. v. Superior Court, the Court was asked to decide whether a medical clinic’s physicians could discriminate for religious reasons against an individual based on that person’s sexual orientation.
In this case, the plaintiff’s doctors refused to artificially inseminate the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s doctors allegedly claimed that their religious beliefs precluded them from performing the procedure on a homosexual person. Thereafter, the plaintiff sued the doctors and the Clinic alleging that she was unlawfully discriminated against in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (the "Act"). The Act provides certain protected classes the right to equal treatment by businesses which are open to the public. The defendants, however, contended that their constitutional rights to religious freedom and free speech required that they be exempt from state and federal discrimination laws.
The Court rejected the defendants’ contention. The Court first held that the Act was a neutral law of general applicability, and, thus, any infringement on the doctors’ right to religious freedom caused by adherence to that law was only incidental and constitutional under federal law. The Court also held that the doctors’ right to free speech was not infringed upon by the Act, and, thus, the Act was constitutional. In applying state law, the Court held that even applying the most exacting level of scrutiny to the Act, the defendants’ contention that they be permitted an exemption from the Act because of their religious beliefs still failed. In so holding, the Court stated that the doctors had two choices under the law that were consistent with their religious beliefs: (1) perform the procedure for no individuals or (2) ensure that there is at least one other doctor employed by the Clinic to perform the procedure who does not share their religious objection.
This is an important case for California employers because it reinforces not only the fact that employers are potentially liable for the conduct of their employees, but also that employers are responsible for ensuring that its employees are complying with discrimination laws with respect to their customers. This case demonstrates that not even an individual’s right to religious freedom will exempt an employer or its employees from state discrimination laws.