ACLU client Oliver Knight (Photo for ACLU of Northern California by Kate Donaldson)
Twenty-seven year old Oliver Knight was lying on a gurney in a pre-surgical holding area on Aug. 30, 2017, an IV drip hooked up waiting for the general anesthetic to be administered. He was completely prepped for his life-changing hysterectomy procedure when his surgeon informed him that the hospital’s executive administrators had canceled his surgery.
The reason for the surgical cancellation is detailed in a 12-page civil lawsuit filed March 21 in Superior Court for Humboldt County, California, by Knight, a transman, against St. Joseph Hospital, located in Eureka.
In a phone call with the Los Angeles Blade Thursday, March 21, ACLU Foundation of Northern California’s Elizabeth Gill, who is representing Knight, now 29, say the hospital claimed that because Knight is transgender, the surgery conflicted with the hospital’s adherence to Catholic doctrine and beliefs.
St. Joseph Hospital is part of the Providence St. Joseph Health Network, a national, Catholic not-for-profit health system, one of the largest health systems in the country, operating 51 hospitals, with over 25,000 physicians. The network operates 18 hospitals in California.
Gill says that Knight being denied healthcare based on the hospital’s religious views—which does not recognize gender-affirming care—is a violation of California’s public accommodations laws governed by California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
However, she points out, the hospital regularly allows hysterectomies for patients who are not trans. Additionally, Knight’s physician said he and other physicians regularly perform the healthcare procedure, making it clear that that the denial was discriminatory based soley on Knight being trans.
Gill says the core issue is the serious opposition to transgender rights by the U. S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, which in turn is conveyed to hospital administrators within the Providence St. Joseph Health Network.
Gill also points out this denial of healthcare services is part of the ongoing organized opposition by the Bishop’s Conference to the Equality Act, which was recently reintroduced in Congress. This is legislation that would add protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to a myriad of existing federal civil rights laws.
The Catholic News Agency reported that in a letter to US Senators signed by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chair of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, head of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the bishops said they “whole-heartedly support nondiscrimination to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected” but warned that “[the] Equality Act purports to address issues of discrimination, it would actually create new problems and threaten fundamental freedoms.”
“The Act’s definitions alone would remove women and girls from protected legal existence. Furthermore, the Act also fails to recognize the difference between the person – who has dignity and is entitled to recognition of it – and the actions of a person, which have ethical and social ramifications. Conflating the two will introduce a plethora of further legal complications,” the bishops wrote.
Additionally, the Equality Act – which does not contain a religious exemption – threatens freedom of speech and freedom of religion and conscience by making it illegal to hold and act upon an individual’s religious beliefs.
The bishops also said the lack of criteria for “gender identity,” which could open the door for abuses in restrooms and locker rooms, is dangerous.
“This risk arises not so much from those who experience gender incongruence, but from others who would take malicious advantage of open-door policies in these private spaces,” the bishops said.
There is no indication Oliver Knight presented such a risk.
The hospital, which is the only healthcare facility serving the Eureka community in a 25-mile area, cannot act in such a discriminatory way under California law, Gill says.
“Gender-affirming care is lifesaving and medically necessary,” Gill tells the Los Angeles Blade. “Transgender people are part of our community, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods and they, just like everyone else, deserve to get the healthcare they need.”
In a blog post on the ACLU website, Oliver expressed his frustrations:
“On Aug. 30, I arrived at the hospital and they checked me in and did the surgery prep, which was extremely uncomfortable and triggering. I was given a pink gown. I asked the nurse if I could have a blue gown, but she told me I was having a “female surgery” and should wear the pink. I felt like a child all over again, sitting uncomfortably in a pink dress. But I forced myself to do it, I had been waiting so long for this.
They hooked me up to an IV to get ready to put me to sleep. About an hour after waiting, my surgeon finally came to get me. But when I saw the look on his face, I got a terrible feeling. He told me my surgery was canceled. It was denied by the Catholic Church for ethical reasons. I didn’t understand how this could be happening. The Catholic bishops didn’t approve of my surgery. It seemed unreal.
I had an anxiety attack and thought about all the pre-op and mental preparedness I had to go through just to get here. I freaked out and started crying. I was given medication to calm me down.
Fifteen minutes after that, the hospital staff asked me to leave. I still had booties on my feet as a nurse led me outside. I felt humiliated and queasy as I sat on the curb waiting for my roommate to pick me up.
It seems the hospital does not understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul. This surgery was important — it was meant to balance my hormones. The delay disrupted my life. I felt like the hospital’s bigotry had set me back years.”
Gill told the Los Angeles Blade that in addition to representing Knight in his suit, the ACLU Foundations of California and the National Health Law Program are launching the All Care Everywhere campaign to make sure all Californians get the healthcare they need. Catholic hospitals like the Providence St. Joseph Health Network are already the largest healthcare provider in the state and for many Californians, those Catholic hospitals are the only option within hundreds of miles.
She said that California’s ACLU Foundations and the National Health Law Program’s campaign will gather stories of people denied care and work to ensure Catholic hospitals do not harm more trans or LGBTQ people with their discriminatory practices.
Asked if she found Knight’s case troubling, especially since it occurred in California, Gill answered simply, “very.”