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Florida Decision on Gay Hospital Visitation Rights Affects Straight Couples Too

Yesterday the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a lawsuit brought by a woman who wasn't allowed to visit her dying same sex partner in a hospital. The woman had all the proper documents, but the hospital still denied visitation, saying that “[Miami] is in a anti-gay city in anti-gay state.”

The court's ruling is important for two reasons:

First, the decision equally affects same sex partners, heterosexual spouses, and immediate family members of hospital patients. The court said that Florida law doesn't grant hospital visitation rights to anyone. That means that a Florida hospital can legally deny the immediate family of a patient from visiting (or anyone else with proper documentation, including power of attorney). Such denial is legal even when, as in this case, the person wanting to visit has medical history information that could affect treatment.

I expect many future court decisions in “anti-gay” states to likewise broadly apply to both straight and gay couples. Increasing public support for gay relationships means that courts cannot easily discriminate outright against gay couples without public backlash. Therefore, the dismissal suggests not that gay partners have no visitation rights in “an anti-gay city in an anti-gay state,” but that nobody does.

The hospital's public statement after the court's dismissal mirrors this desire to be nondiscriminatory about what is clearly discriminatory treatment. Steve Rothaus reported the hospital's statement in the Miami Herald

We have always believed and known that the staff at Jackson treats everyone equally, and that their main concern is the well-being of the patients in their care. . . . At Jackson Health System, we believe in a culture of inclusion. For more than 90 years, the institution has taken great pride in serving everyone who enters its doors, regardless of race, creed, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. We also employ a very diverse workforce, one that mirrors the community we serve.

Second, the decision reminds gay couples everywhere that not even the best legal preparation can reliably defeat an institution determined to discriminate against them. This woman followed all the typical advice about bringing documents with her to ensure that her rights are recognized–it still didn't work.

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.

Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper