Friday, August 29, 2008

Supreme Court Rejects "Free Exercise" Defense To Unruh Act Claim

On August 18, 2008, the California Supreme Court decided North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, Inc. v. Superior Court (here), holding that neither the federal nor the California Constitution exempts a medical clinic's physicians from complying with the Unruh Act's prohibition against discrimination based on a patient's sexual orientation. With respect to the federal constitution, the Court held that (1) the federal constitution's "free exercise" clause did not provide a religious exemption to generally applicable regulatory laws that are neutral with respect to religion; and (2) the Unruh's Act's non-discrimination requirement did not violate the doctors' free speech rights. With respect to the state constitution, the Court held that the "free exercise/liberty of conscience" provision embodied in Article I, Section 4 did not give physicians a constitutional defense against the plaintiff's Unruh Act claim. Notably, the Court did not decide whether claims under this provision must be evaluated using the deferential federal standard set forth in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which holds that the federal constitution's "free exercise" clause does not create an exemption to neutral laws of general applicability, or instead must satisfy a more stringent standard such as "strict scrutiny." The Court avoided this issue by holding that the state constitution's free exercise clause did not provide an affirmative defense even if "strict scrutiny" applied, because the Unruh Act serves the State's compelling interest in preventing discrmination and there are no less restrictive means to achieve that goal.

No comments: