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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Calif. Court: Doctors Cannot Withhold Care To Gays

California's highest court on Monday barred doctors from invoking their religious beliefs as a reason to deny treatment to gays and lesbians, ruling that state law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination extends to the medical profession.

The ruling was unanimous and a succinct 18 pages, a contrast to the state Supreme Court's 4-3 schism in May legalizing gay marriage.

Justice Joyce Kennard wrote in the ruling that two Christian fertility doctors who refused to artificially inseminate a lesbian have neither a free speech right nor a religious exemption from the state's law, which "imposes on business establishments certain antidiscrimination obligations."

In the lawsuit that led to the ruling, Guadalupe Benitez, 36, of Oceanside said that the doctors treated her with fertility drugs and instructed her how to inseminate herself at home but told her their beliefs prevented them from inseminating her. One of the doctors referred her to another fertility specialist without moral objections and Benitez has since given birth to three children.

Nevertheless, Benitez in 2001 sued the Vista-based North Coast Women's Care Medical Group. She and her lawyers successfully argued that a state law prohibiting businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation applies to doctors.

The law was originally designed to prevent hotels, restaurants and other public services from refusing to serve patrons because of their race. The Legislature has since expanded it to cover characteristics such as age and sexual orientation.

"It was an awful thing to go through," Benitez said. "It was very painful -- the fact that you have someone telling you they will not help you because of who you are, that they will deny your right to be a mother and have a family."

Benitez has given birth to three children through artificial insemination -- Gabriel, 6, and twin daughters, Sophia and Shane, who turn 3 this weekend. She is raising them in Oceanside with her longtime partner, Joanne Clark.

Jennifer Pizer, Benitez's attorney, said the ruling was "a victory for public health" and that she expected it to have nationwide influence.

"It was clear and emphatic that discrimination has no place in doctors' offices," Pizer said.

Robert Tyler, one of the lawyers representing the clinic, said the ruling advanced the Supreme Court's "radical agenda" and would help the campaign supporting November's Proposition 8, which seeks to once again ban gay marriage in California.

"The Supreme Court's desire to promote the homosexual lifestyle at the risk of infringing upon the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is what the public needs to learn about," said Tyler, who leads the nonprofit Advocates for Faith and Freedom in Murrieta, Calif. "This case will have a direct impact and cause people and look very favorably at Proposition 8."

The Supreme Court did order a trial court to consider whether the Christian doctors were allowed to refuse inseminating Benitez because she was unmarried. The Legislature in 2006 amended the law to bar discrimination based on marital status, but it's unclear whether the doctors could legally withhold treatment in 2000.

The case drew numerous friends of the court briefs from a wide variety of religious organizations, medical groups and gay civil rights organizations.

The American Civil Rights Union supported the Christian doctors, siding with the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations and anti-abortion groups.

The California Medical Association reversed its early support of the Christian doctors after receiving a barrage of criticism from the gay rights community, joining health care provider Kaiser Foundation Health Plan to oppose the Christian doctors.

PETA yearns for a spot on border fence

If, one day, a Mexican day laborer smelling of tofu and alfalfa sprouts hurls a bucket of paint on your mink coat, curse not the country's broken Immigration system.

Instead, you can thank the good people who brought you the $1 million artificial chicken contest and sang the joys of pleather.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (better known as PETA) sees the wall being built at the U.S.-Mexico border as both a futile attempt to stop a complex, intractable problem and a blank slate to win over new soldiers in its war against meat.

Last week, the organization offered to buy ad space on the wall anywhere along the border, at whatever the going rate might be.
Directed toward those presumably scaling the wall, the ad would say, in both English and Spanish: "If the border patrol doesn't get you, the chicken and burgers will. Go vegan."

An answer from U.S. Customs and Border Protection is forthcoming, said PETA spokeswoman Ashley Byrne.

"We're very serious," Byrne said, dismissing the various cheers posted by supporters on the organization's Web site, peta.org. "We just wanted Mexicans and other immigrants to know that, if they cross into the U.S., they're putting their health at risk by leaving behind healthier stable diets of corn, tortillas, fruits, vegetables, beans and rice.

"America is no longer the land of the free and home of the brave; it's becoming the land of the sick and the home of the obese," Byrne added, in what might make for a good, and true, second ad slogan.

There is one problem that PETA may not be aware of, however: Mexicans love meat. Those beans? Usually cooked by any self-respecting Mexican mother with pork lard and, maybe even, bits of bacon. The tortillas? Best served with a grilled flank steak or chorizo.

And given that scores of people die every year trying to cross illegally into the United States; that many are fleeing starvation; and that survival, not healthy eating habits, is their most immediate worry, it seems hard to imagine the advertisements would have much impact.

But, even faced with all that, Byrne seemed undeterred.

"The fact that Americans eat far more animal flesh per capita than the Third World would explain why Americans have a higher death rate from coronary disease and other problems," she said.

If the ads do eventually make it up on the wall, and PETA does gain converts among the newly arrived, the immigrants can ponder the evils of meat while working furiously at their jobs—particularly if the job is at a farm with livestock or at a slaughterhouse.
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At JFK Airport, Denying Basic Rights Is Just Another Day at the Office

I arrived at JFK Airport two weeks ago after a short vacation to Syria and presented my American passport for re-entry to the United States. After 28 hours of traveling, I had settled into a hazy awareness that this was the last, most familiar leg of a long journey. I exchanged friendly words with the Homeland Security official who was recording my name in his computer. He scrolled through my passport, and when his thumb rested on my Syrian visa, he paused. Jerking toward the door of his glass-enclosed booth, he slid my passport into a dingy green plastic folder and walked down the hallway, motioning for me to follow with a flick of his wrist. Where was he taking me, I asked him. "You'll find out," he said.

We got to an enclosed holding area in the arrivals section of the airport. He shoved the folder into my hand and gestured toward four sets of Homeland Security guards sitting at large desks. Attached to each desk were metal poles capped with red, white and blue siren lights. I approached two guards carrying weapons and wearing uniforms similar to New York City police officers, but they shook their heads, laughed and said, "Over there," pointing in the direction of four overflowing holding pens. I approached different desks until I found an official who nodded and shoved my green folder in a crowded metal file holder. When I asked him why I was there, he glared at me, took a sip from his water bottle, bit into a sandwich, and began to dig between his molars with his forefinger. I found a seat next to a man who looked about my age -- in his late 20s -- and waited.

Omar (not his real name) finished his fifth year in biomedical engineering at City College in June. He had just arrived from Beirut, where he visited his family and was waiting to go home to the apartment he shared with his brother in Harlem. Despite his near-perfect English and designer jeans, Omar looked scared. He rubbed his hands and rocked softly in his seat. He had been waiting for hours already, and, as he pointed out, a number of people -- some sick, elderly, pregnant or holding sobbing babies -- had too. There were approximately 70 people detained in our cordoned-off section: All were Arab (with the exception of me and the friend I traveled with), and almost all had arrived from Dubai, Amman or Damascus. Many were U.S. citizens.

We were in the front row, sitting a few feet from two guards' desks. They sneered at each bewildered arrival, told jokes in whispers, swiveled in their office chairs and greeted passing
guards who stopped to talk -- guards who had a habit of looping their fingers into their holsters. One asked his friend how many nationalities were represented in the room. "About 20. Some of everything today."

No one who had been detained knew precisely why they were there. A few people were led into private rooms; others were questioned out in the open at desks a few feet from the crowd and then allowed to pass through customs. Some were sent to another section of the holding area with large computer screens and cameras, and then brought back. The uninformed consensus among the detainees was that some people would be fingerprinted, have their irises scanned and be sent back to the countries from which they had disembarked, regardless of citizenship status; others would be fingerprinted and allowed to stay; and the unlucky ones would be detained indefinitely and moved to a more permanent facility.

There was one British tourist in the group. Paul (also not his real name) was traveling with three friends who had passed through customs soon after their plane landed and were waiting for him on the other side of the metal barrier; he suspected he had been detained because of his dark skin. When he asked if he could go to the bathroom, one of the guards said, "I wouldn't." "What if someone has to?" I asked. "They will just have to hold it," the guard responded with a smile. Paul began to cry. I watched as he, over the course of four hours, went from feeling exuberant about his trip to New York to despising the entire country. "I speak the Queen's English," he said to me. "I'm third-generation British. I came to America because I've always wanted to come here, and now they've got me so scared that all I want to do is go home. We're paying for your stupid war anyway."

To be powerless and mocked at the same time makes one feel ashamed, which leads quickly to rage. Within a few hours of my arrival, I saw at least 10 people denied the right to use the bathroom or buy food and water. I watched my traveling companion duck under a barrier, run to the bathroom and slip back into the holding section -- which, of course, someone of another ethnicity in a state of panic would be very reluctant to do. The United States is good at naming enemies, but apparently we are even better at making them, especially of individuals. I don't know if it's worse for national security -- and more embarrassing for Americans -- that this is the first experience tourists have of our country, or that some U.S. citizens get treated this way upon entering their own country.

The guard who had been picking his molars for hours quietly mispronounced the names of people whose turn it was to be questioned, muttering each surname three times and then moving on. When he called Omar from City College to his desk, I moved closer to hear the interview. "Where did you go?" the officer asked. "What is your address in the United States? Is your brother here illegally? Do you support Hezbollah? What do you think of Hezbollah in general? How do you pay for your life here? How many people live with you? Are you sure it's just you and your brother? Who are your friends?" Omar answered respectfully and emphatically; he was then asked to wait by the side of the desk, from which he was ushered toward one of the rooms.

After four hours, I finally demanded to speak to the guards' supervisor, and he was called down. I asked if the detainees could file a formal complaint. He said there were complaint forms (which, in English and Spanish, direct one to the Department of Homeland Security's Web site, where one must enter extensive personal information in order to file a "Trip Summary") but initially refused to hand them out or to give me his telephone number. "The Department of Homeland Security is understaffed, underfunded, and I have men here who are doing 14-hour days." He tried to intimidate me when I wrote down his name -- "So, you're writing down our names. Well, we have more on you" -- and asked me questions about my address and my profession in front of the rest of the people detained. I pointed out a few of the families who had missed their flights and had been waiting seven hours. His voice barely controlled, his lip curled into a smirk, he explained slowly, condescendingly, that they need only go to the ticket counter at Jet Blue and reschedule so they could fly out in an hour. One mother responded with what he must have already known: Jet Blue goes to most destinations only once or twice a day and her whole family would have to sleep in the airport.

A large crowd began to gather. Everyone wanted to voice complaints. I explained to the supervisor that his guards had been making people afraid. He flipped through the green files, tossing the American passports to the front of the pile. "You should have gone first, before these people. American citizens first -- that's how it should be." In the face of dozens of requests and questions, he turned and left.

The guards processed me then, ignoring the order of arrivals, if there ever had been one. They refused to distribute more complaint forms or call the supervisor back down at the request of Arab families. One officer threatened, "I'm talking politely to you now. If you don't sit down, I won't be talking politely to you anymore." One announced that because "the American girl" had gotten angry, the families would have to wait a few more hours. "The supervisor is not coming back."

I reassured my Homeland Security interrogator that I did not make any connections with Hezbollah or with anyone I knew to be associated with such an organization. I am not a member of any terrorist group. In fact, my visit to Syria had been so apolitical and touristy that I felt an embarrassing affinity with the pastel-shirted families waiting by the Air France baggage carousels in the distance, whom I knew I would eventually join.

As I walked out of the enclosure, some people thanked me, squeezing my arm and putting their hands on my shoulders. It was shocking that briefly standing up to someone overseeing an abuse of civil rights -- in JFK airport, in the United States, where we supposedly have laws and a democratic judicial system -- could be perceived as heroic. I had nothing to lose, but the other people being detained had everything to lose.

In the past five years I have worked for human rights and refugee advocacy organizations in Serbia, Russia and Croatia, including the International Rescue Committee and USAID. I have traveled to many different places, some supposedly repressive, and have never seen people treated with the kind of animosity that Homeland Security showed that night. In Syria, border control officers were stern but polite. At other borders there have been bureaucracies to contend with -- excruciating for both Americans and other foreign nationals. I've met Russian officials with dead, suspicious looks in their eyes and arms tired from stamping so many visas, but in America, the Homeland Security officials I encountered were very much alive -- like vultures waiting to eat.

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