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ACLU Sues Sacramento Catholic Hospital for Refusing Transgender Surgery

Doctor holding rosary

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing a Roman Catholic hospital in California after it turned away a transgender man who sought a hysterectomy last August. As a matter of Roman Catholic doctrine, the hospital does not perform elective sterilizations, but the ACLU claims the case is sexual discrimination against a transgender person.

"It devastated me, and I don't want it to affect my transgender brothers and sisters the way it affected me," the transgender man, 35-year-old Evan Michael Minton, told The Sacramento Bee last month. "No one should have to go through that."

Minton was turned away from Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, Calif. Mercy San Juan is a branch of Dignity Health, a network of hospitals in the area. After the hospital rejected the surgery in August, it was performed in September at Methodist Hospital of Sacramento, a Dignity Health facility not bound by Catholic doctrines.

"I don't blame the staff," Minton's surgeon, Dr. Lindsey Dawson, said in August. "I don't blame the administrators. I blame the (Catholic) doctrines."

Elizabeth Gill, senior staff attorney for ACLU Northern California, argued the hospital's denial was "a clear-cut case of discrimination," based on the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals based on their sex, race, religion, age, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation. The suit seeks $4,000, the minimal amount of damages under the law, Gill told the Bee.

"We cannot speak to the allegations until we have the opportunity to review them," Mercy San Juan spokeswoman Melissa Jue told PJ Media in a statement. "What we can share is that at Dignity Health Mercy San Juan Medical Center, the services we provide are available to all members of the communities we serve without discrimination."

Jue made the center's position clear: "We do not provide elective sterilizations at Dignity Health's Catholic facilities in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) and the medical staff bylaws."

Indeed, section 53 of the ERDs makes clear that "direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution." However, "procedures that induce sterility are permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and similar treatment is not available."

"We understand how important this surgery is for transgender individuals, and we were happy to provide Mr. Minton and his surgeon the use of another Dignity Health hospital for his surgery within a few days," Jue added.

In November 2015, the Conference of Catholic Bishops joined nine other religious entities in opposition to the Obama administration's push to include gender identity in federal health care laws. "We believe, as do many health care providers, that medical and surgical interventions that attempt to alter one's sex are, in fact, detrimental to patients," the groups wrote. "Such interventions are not properly viewed as health care because they do not cure or prevent disease or illness. Rather they reject a person's nature at birth as male or female."

According to the Unruh Civil Rights Act, discrimination is defined to include "a perception" by the aggrieved party. Some have argued that this overbroad provision would even apply to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as black for many years.

The state law contains no conscience protection for religious belief, so the ACLU has the upper hand, so long as the lawsuit remains in the California state court system. Since the Catholic Church operates over six hundred hospitals in the U.S., however, this case is likely to reach higher courts. In federal law, both the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) would arguably protect the Catholic hospital, especially since Minton was able to get the surgery elsewhere.

Minton came out as transgender six years ago, and has had a double mastectomy and a phalloplasty (male organ construction surgery), in addition to the hysterectomy. "It's almost magical, just to be able to be congruent with ho I am — to have my outer body match my inner self," Minton told The Sacramento Bee.

A Roman Catholic would argue that this is exactly the kind of "magic" long opposed by the church, as destructive to the human person. Minton may reach some catharsis in this transition, but according to Catholic doctrine — and many non-Catholic Christians agree with this — this person has mutilated the body God gave her, and that is a tragedy. Indeed, many former transgender people have later gone back to their birth gender and lamented the damage they did to themselves in the pursuit of an identity.

There is room for debate on this issue, and the hospital's action of connecting Minton with another health center where the surgery could be performed demonstrated the good faith nature of their disagreement.

Mercy San Juan Medical Center does not provide elective sterilizations on anyone, so this is not an issue of discrimination. Any person — transgender or not — would have been denied as Minton was. The ACLU is suing because of how the rejection made Minton feel, and the organization is falsely presenting this as part of a concerted effort against transgender people, even after the hospital helped Minton find an alternative health center for the surgery.

The real issue is whether or not a Catholic hospital should be allowed to operate on the basis of the institution's commitment to religious beliefs. It is truly disturbing to see the ACLU use the rhetoric of discrimination as a weapon against religious freedom and free association.