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Supreme Court of the United States

This Catholic Hospital Is in Court Because It Wouldn’t Perform a Surgery That Violates Its Faith

By Maureen Collins posted on:
May 12, 2020

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues in the United States, hospitals are focused on helping as many people as possible. Hospitals are tasked with making sure they have enough beds, enough personnel, and enough protective equipment to serve everyone infected with the virus, especially the vulnerable.

But a Catholic hospital outside Sacramento, California, named Mercy San Juan Medical Center has one more thing to worry about: It is being sued for following its religious beliefs.

In April, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the Catholic Medical Association and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, supporting Mercy’s right to operate consistently with its faith.

In 2016, a female patient who identifies as a transgender man asked Mercy to perform an elective hysterectomy as a “gender-affirming surgical treatment” for gender dysphoria. That means that, because of what this patient believes about her gender, doctors and medical staff were asked to surgically remove healthy organs so the patient could “transition” from living as a woman to living as a man.

But Mercy could not perform that surgery because doing so would violate its Catholic beliefs. These are the same beliefs shared by a group of Catholic nuns who, in 1854, arrived in San Francisco from Ireland and founded a Catholic hospital to care for patients who had been hit hard by cholera, typhoid, and influenza. Over the years, one hospital became many, and those hospitals eventually became a network of hospitals called Dignity Health. Mercy is one of the Catholic hospitals within that larger network.

Today, Dignity Health continues its founders’ mission to affirm the basic dignity of all people—regardless of their background, ethnicity, or circumstances—by providing them excellent medical care and helping them lead healthy, meaningful lives. For Catholic hospitals like Mercy, carrying out that mission is guided and motivated by the hospital’s Catholic faith.  

So when a patient asked Mercy to perform a surgery that would have violated the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mercy chose to follow those Directives. Directive 53 says that any direct sterilization, like the patient was requesting, is prohibited by Catholic teaching: “Direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution. Procedures that induce sterility are [only] permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”

For Catholics, this Directive is based on the belief that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and has God-given inherent human dignity. In light of this belief, Catholic health care providers are committed to providing care while affirming God’s design for each of their patients. So performing an invasive, sometimes dangerous, surgery to remove a perfectly healthy body part for the sole purpose of altering God’s design was not an option Mercy could consider.

But Mercy’s religious beliefs didn’t matter to the patient requesting the “sex reassignment surgery.” It also didn’t matter that the patient was able to have the same surgery at a different hospital three days later. The patient sued Mercy and Dignity Health in a California court. And when that court did the right thing and dismissed the lawsuit, the California Court of Appeal reversed, holding that a jury should get to decide whether Mercy is using its religious beliefs as a cover to discriminate against its patients.

That’s why the Catholic Medical Association, the largest organization of Catholic healthcare professionals in the country, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, a nationally and internationally recognized Catholic ethics institute, are standing alongside Mercy and Dignity Health.

Faith should never be on trial in an American courtroom. In fact, the Supreme Court has developed a doctrine to prevent that from happening. Its name sounds complicated—“ecclesiastical abstention doctrine”—but its application is not. It means courts cannot interfere in questions of religious doctrine. And the California Court of Appeal completely ignored this important principle.

The Supreme Court should step in to correct that mistake. Religious hospitals should never be forced to choose between their religious beliefs and keeping their doors open for their patients. And especially during a pandemic, forcing hospitals to discard their religious beliefs or shut down would be devastating for everyone.


Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Digital Cultivation Manager

Maureen Collins serves as the Digital Cultivation Manager at Alliance Defending Freedom.


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