Must a church guarantee a pregnant employee her job back after the birth of her child?
This question is being asked by many churches as a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, prohibits most employers from discriminating in any employment decision (including disability leave and job reinstatement) on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth. Among other things, this means that employees temporarily disabled by childbirth must be treated the same as employees temporarily disabled by any other disability (such as cancer, heart disease, or a bone fracture).
In 1978, the State of California enacted a law requiring employers subject to Title VII to provide unpaid disability leave and the assurance of job reinstatement to all female employees temporarily disabled by childbirth so long as they were physically unable to return to work (but in no event more than four months). No other group of employees received these special privileges. Accordingly, the law was challenged on the ground that it treated employees preferentially on the basis of childbirth contrary to Title VII's requirement of neutrality.
The Supreme Court, in upholding the California law, concluded that Title VII forbids less favorable but permits more favorable disability leave and reinstatement privileges on account of childbirth. Accordingly, the State of California could require unpaid disability leave of up to four months, plus job reinstatement guarantees, for employees temporarily disabled by childbirth without requiring similar guarantees for employees temporarily disabled by other conditions.
However, this ruling is of limited relevance to churches for two reasons. First, the Court merely upheld a California law; it did not declare a national policy. Second, the California law only applies to California employers subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In general, covered employers include only those employing fifteen or more employees and who are engaged in a business or activity "affecting commerce." California churches and religious organizations employing fewer that fifteen persons are automatically excluded from the law. And, even those California churches and religious organizations employing fifteen or more persons are only covered to the extent that they are engaged in an activity affecting commerce.
Over the past several years the courts have so loosely interpreted the concept of "affecting commerce" that it is likely that some larger churches and religious organizations employing fifteen or more persons will be covered by the law. The nature and degree of commercial activities is a key consideration in making this determination. It remains to be seen whether other states will follow California in adopting legislation giving pregnant employees mandatory leave and job reinstatement privileges.
The Court observed that Montana and Connecticut already had similar provisions. California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra, 107 S. Ct. 683 (1987).