WASHINGTON — In a major victory for working women, the Supreme Court today upheld a California law that gives pregnant employees the right to a four-month leave and guarantees that they get back their own or an equivalent job afterward.
The justices, on a 6-3 vote, concluded that a federal law outlawing discrimination against pregnant women did not prevent the state from discriminating in favor of them.
"Congress intended the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to be a floor beneath which pregnancy benefits may not drop--not a ceiling above which they may not rise," Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority. "By taking pregnancy into account, California's pregnancy disability leave statute allows women, as well as men, to have families without losing their jobs."
The case arose when Lillian Garland, a bank teller in West Los Angeles, took a leave to have a baby but was told by her employer, California Federal Savings & Loan Assn., that her job was filled while she was gone. She appealed to the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission, which accused Cal Fed of violating a 1978 state law granting women four months of disability leave for pregnancies.
State Law Invalidated
But attorneys for Cal Fed went to federal court and won an order invalidating the state law. The federal pregnancy act, also enacted in 1978, said that pregnant workers "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes." Cal Fed said that it did not guarantee men their jobs back after they take disability leaves.
However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the California law in 1985, saying it "defies common sense" to use a federal pregnancy discrimination law to nullify a job guarantee for pregnant women.
Cal Fed, joined by the California Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants & Manufacturers Assn., appealed to the Supreme Court.
For the justices, the issue was the same as in the many affirmative action cases: Does a federal law forbidding discrimination against a disadvantaged group also forbid special treatment for those persons?
With Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia joining the traditional liberal bloc, the high court said no. Marshall stressed that the California law provided only a limited benefit to women: the right to unpaid leave during the time she was disabled because of pregnancy. Moreover, the law "does not reflect archaic or stereotypical notions about pregnancy" which would cause the court to frown on the special treatment provisions.
Renewed Discrimination Feared
Several women's groups, including the NOW Legal Defense Fund and the Women's Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, had opposed California's statute, fearing that such special provisions benefitting women would lead ultimately to renewed discrimination against women.
However, Emily Spitzer, an attorney for the NOW Defense Fund in Washington, said she was pleased with the ruling. "The court is saying that compliance with both statutes is not physically impossible. Cal Fed could give the same benefits to their male employees," she said.
Three other states--Connecticut, Montana and Massachusetts--have the same law as California's. Twelve others have similar regulations.
In dissent, Associate Justice Byron R. White, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., said that the language of the federal law "could not be clearer: It mandates that pregnant employees 'shall be treated the same'. . . . (It) leaves no room for preferential treatment of pregnant workers."