Ordering a Catholic hospital in California to perform a tubal ligation sterilization procedure on a woman would violate its religious freedom, a San Francisco judge ruled Thursday.
"Religious-based hospitals have an enshrined place in American history and its communities, and the religious beliefs reflected in their operation are not to be interfered with by courts at this moment in history," Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith said while finalizing his previous tentative ruling.
The decision came after Rebecca Chamorro, 33, filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction that would require Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Calif., to perform the procedure after she delivered her third baby.
The judge also noted that Chamorro could get the birth control procedure elsewhere, and the hospital was not engaging in sex discrimination by denying it because its policy against sterilization on religious grounds also applies to men.
Chamorro wanted the procedure immediately following her scheduled cesarean section on Jan. 28 because she and her husband don't want more children. Her attorneys say tubal ligation is safest when performed immediately after a birth.
The lawsuit is part of a growing clash over birth control and abortion health care coverage. Dozens of U.S. Roman Catholic dioceses, charities and colleges have sued in federal court over the contraceptive coverage required under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Several evangelical nonprofits have also sued, arguing some of the birth control methods covered under the law are tantamount to abortion.
Elizabeth Gill, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Chamorro, said her lawsuit would continue, though Chamorro would likely have to undergo the cesarean section without getting a tubal ligation at Mercy Medical, her closest delivery option.
"We disagree with the court about what California law requires," Gill said. "This is a real issue about women's health."
Health care provider Dignity Health, which operates Mercy Medical and 38 other hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona, says the tubal ligation sought by Chamorro is not medically necessary and would violate the hospital's right to freedom of religion.
"There's no law ... that would support this kind of intrusion on a Catholic hospitals observance of ethical and religious directives," Barry Landsberg, an attorney representing Dignity Health, told the judge on Thursday.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Hobby Lobby chain and other closely held private businesses with religious objections could opt out of the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The ACLU has also filed a complaint with a state agency against a Michigan Catholic hospital that also refused to perform a tubal ligation, according to Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. She said the woman in that case was able to go to another hospital. The complaint is pending.
Chamorro's attorneys say Chamorro has no choice but to use Mercy Medical Center for the delivery of her child because Redding is about 200 miles north of San Francisco and the next closest hospital she could use is more than 70 miles away.
The lawsuit accuses Dignity Health of violating California laws against sex discrimination and the practice of medicine by corporations, pointing out that Chamorro's obstetrician had sought permission from Mercy Medical to perform the procedure.
The ACLU says the hospital allowed another woman to undergo a tubal ligation after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit and that the medical center was illegally restricting Chamorro for non-medical reasons.
The hospital's attorney acknowledged other tubal ligations had been allowed but said they were evaluated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the hospital's religious policies. He did not, however, elaborate.