Eureka hospital files motion to quash lawsuit filed by transgender man denied surgery

St. Joseph Hospital claims right to religious freedom; ACLU attorney calls it discrimination

Oliver Knight is suing St. Joseph Health after being denied a hysterectomy that his surgeon deemed medically necessary as part of his transition process. Attorneys for the hospital filed a motion to quash the case. (ACLU — Contributed)
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Attorneys for St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka filed a motion to quash a lawsuit alleging discrimination by the hospital for refusing to perform hysterectomy because the patient was transgender.

The motion, filed July 12, claims the complaint “fails to allege intentional discrimination by St. Joseph.”

“Indeed the complaint presents a direct attack on St. Joseph’s right to be a Catholic hospital because St. Joseph adheres to the binding Catholic doctrine, including the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” the legal filing states.

The lawsuit, filed in March, alleges Eureka resident Oliver Knight’s civil rights were violated and that he faced discrimination because of his identity. Knight was scheduled to have a hysterectomy at St. Joseph Hospital in August 2017 but after he was prepped and readied for surgery — something he felt was “uncomfortable and triggering” — he was told the hospital canceled his surgery because he is a transgender man.

The hospital maintains it does not discriminate.

“St. Joseph Hospital does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” the hospital said in a statement provided by spokesperson Christina Harris. “We value all people and strive to ensure every patient under our care is treated with dignity and respect. We pride ourselves on providing quality, compassionate health care to everyone who comes to us for care, regardless of race, color, religion, creed, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other protected status.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and an Oakland-based law firm are representing Knight in the case.

The motion by attorneys for St. Joseph asserts the Unruh Civil Rights Act does not cover gender dysphoria, the feeling of being assigned the wrong gender at birth. The Unruh Civil Rights Act is a state law that specifically outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation.

“The Unruh Act cannot be enforced in a manner that would violate St. Joseph’s constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of expression,” the motion states.

In backing up its assertions, the motion cites multiple other cases, including one case between an Idaho-based Catholic hospital and a physician.

“Mercy Medical Center has the right to adhere to its own religious beliefs and not be forced to make its facilities available for services which it finds repugnant,” the motion from St. Joseph attorneys states.

“St. Joseph Hospital is not implying that performing a hysterectomy on a transgender man is ‘repugnant,’” Harris said in response to a question about the use of that citation. “That terminology was used in another case that was cited to demonstrate that the courts have upheld the right of Catholic hospitals to follow the Ethical Religious Directives, which provide guidance on certain aspects of Catholic health care delivery.”

The hospital’s legal filing also states ordering it to permit a procedure “could have devastating consequences.”

“Such a ruling could force St. Joseph and other Catholic hospitals to refuse to provide procedures — such as hysterectomies — to anyone, under any circumstances to avoid claims of alleged discrimination,” the filing states.

Knight did have the hysterectomy performed at Mad River Community Hospital after being denied the surgery at St. Joseph Hospital.

Reached on Friday, Knight recounted what he called a “terrible, terrible, traumatic experience.”

“When I was asked to leave, (my surgeon) said he was scheduling with Mad River,” he said. “To help me calm down, he told me, ‘It’s OK. I’m going to get you another surgery date. We’re going to do it at Mad River.’”

But he dreaded the surgery process playing out again.

“I really did not want to go through that again,” he said. “… I lived at the time in Eureka. I wanted to go to St. Joe’s because it was a three-minute drive from my house.”

Elizabeth Gill, one of the attorneys representing Knight in the case, said being relegated to another hospital is analogous to racist behaviors documented in the civil rights era.

“Turning people away from a business establishment isn’t justified,” she said Friday afternoon. “If you think of any of the classic moments in civil rights history: Is it OK for a restaurant to not serve anyone based on their race? Is it OK to go across the street? That is not what the Unruh Act contemplates.”

She said the motion did not have much to stand on legally from her perspective. She added, if upheld, it could have greater implications.

“They could refuse to treat women,” she said. “The California Supreme Court has already upheld a religious freedom challenge. (St. Joseph) make these broad arguments. But in our perspective, there is not a lot of basis for them to do that.”

She said the case was simply one of discrimination based on the fact Knight is transgender.

“They are saying they have the religious freedom right to discriminate,” Gill said.

Gill said the team of attorneys representing Knight will file a response to the hospital’s motion in early September. The motion filed by the attorneys for St. Joseph will be heard in Humboldt County Superior Court on Sept. 27.

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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