By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., April 17 (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employers cannot discriminate against pregnant women under the state's civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination.
The ruling appeared to render moot most of a proposed bill unanimously passed by the state Senate and pending on the House calendar. The bill would add pregnancy among protected conditions under state law.
The 6-1 ruling by the state's highest court cited a Massachusetts precedent.
"We embrace the common-sense reasoning of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts that pregnancy is a natural condition unique to women and a 'primary characteristic of the female sex,'" Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.
Chief Justice Ricky Polston dissented, saying the law forbids sex discrimination but says nothing about pregnancy. He noted that federal law protects pregnant employees from being treated differently on the job.
Polston wrote in his dissent that "the plain meaning of the Florida Civil Rights Act does not encompass pregnancy discrimination." He added, "On its face, the term 'sex' does not refer to whether one is pregnant or not pregnant, even though that status is biologically confined to one gender."
The statute forbids employers to base job conditions on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or marital status.
The case was brought by a woman working as a front desk manager for a residential property firm. The court said she filed suit in 2011, alleging the company "conducted heightened scrutiny of her work" and refused to let her switch shifts with other employees to accommodate her pregnancy, although company policy permitted such arrangements.
The state Supreme Court case arose as a conflict between two lower appeals courts after the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami had ruled that pregnancy was not covered by the statute, while the Fourth District Court in West Palm Beach ruled in a separate case the Florida Civil Rights Act did apply. (Edited by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker)