Religion Is Not A License To Discriminate

| Aug 25, 2016

After years of counseling and hormone therapy, a transgender woman in Eastern Washington was ready for the next phase of medically necessary gender-affirming surgery, and the Washington State Health Care Authority referred her to an experienced provider. But when she called to schedule her procedure, she was told that the hospital would not provide care to her because she was transgender, claiming religious reasons. When she sought help from hospital administration, she was told that her request would have to be reviewed by the local bishop and other religious leaders. Finally, she had to obtain care elsewhere, hours away from her home and family.

This is sadly not an unusual story. Despite the positive changes in state policy over the last few years, there is a severe shortage of physicians who are qualified to perform medically necessary transition-related procedures and treatments, and even fewer accept insurance. Casey Jaywork of the Seattle Weekly recently documented the journey of a Seattle transman who was forced to go to Oregon to get treatment. When Jaywork asked a state Medicaid spokesperson for a list of surgeons who do top surgeries and accept Medicaid, the response was only “I wish we had that information.”

When it is already so difficult to find a doctor, to have the hospital itself block available treatment for religious reasons is unconscionable. Hospitals and doctors who deny services because a patient is transgender are part of a broader trend of attempts to limit anti-discrimination laws on the basis of religious exemptions.  Currently, one in six hospitals in the country are operated in accordance with Catholic religious rules. According to MergerWatch and the ACLU, 40 percent of all hospital beds in Washington State are in religious hospitals, and entire regions have no other option for hospital care. These hospitals are receiving federal funds as public hospitals and refusing to offer the full range of medically appropriate services to the public, including women’s reproductive care and appropriate care for LGBT people.

Recognizing that her rights had been violated, the Eastern Washington woman reached out to Denise Diskin of Teller & Associates. Very involved with both GSBA and QLaw, Denise is a leader in our state in the fight for LGBT civil rights, focusing on discrimination and harassment toward LGB and particularly transgender people, and was recently recognized by the LGBT Bar as one of the country’s Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40. She also founded the monthly transgender legal clinic at Ingersoll Gender Center so that trans people can get legal advice in a safe space, as well as at QLaw’s regular monthly legal clinic.

Denise then reached out to Legal Voice, because as she put it, “no one knows more than Legal Voice about handling issues of religious exclusions in healthcare.” This is the third time that they have worked together, previously securing pregnancy medical benefits for a lesbian couple and defending another client’s access to medically necessary treatment after a denial by their insurance company. “We knew this denial of treatment was a clear violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination,” says David Ward, Legal & Legislative Counsel with Legal Voice.

A settlement was reached between the woman and the hospital, providing her with $50,000 and requiring that the hospital train its staff in providing appropriate, respectful care to transgender patients. The client herself explained that “The fact that the hospital will be training their staff to properly treat and accommodate the LGBT community after the incident is of great importance to me. That is the real victory in all of this.”

This case reminds us that there are strong protections under both state and federal law that prohibit healthcare providers from refusing services to people because of their gender identity. The Affordable Care Act is very clear on the rights of transgender people to access to healthcare, although the LGBT community must continue to fight the ongoing attacks on anti-discrimination laws . Religion is not a license to discriminate in healthcare! If an a person experiences discrimination by a healthcare provider because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, they may file a complaint with both the Washington State Human Rights Commission and the federal Health & Human Services Civil Rights Division, and contact a private attorney or an organization like Legal Voice for assistance.

This story is about basic humanity. All patients should be treated like people in their place of care. As we saw in combating Initiative 1515’s efforts to roll back our anti-discrimination laws, we still face determined foes. Thanks to the work of exceptional legal superstars like Denise Diskin and Legal Voice, our community’s rights have been upheld once more.