13 January 2014
Religious discrimination – the right of Christians not to work on Sundays
A Christian care worker who resigned from her post after being required to work on Sundays, which she regarded as a violation of the fourth commandment, has failed in her landmark fight for compensation (Mba v The Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Merton).
The woman worked at a children’s care home. Her employment contract required her to work on Sundays, although her wish not to do so had been accommodated by her local authority employer for two years. When the home was short-staffed, however, she was put on the rota for Sunday working. This requirement led to her eventual resignation, ‘with regret', and she launched Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings, claiming constructive unfair dismissal and religious discrimination.
Her constructive unfair dismissal claim was rejected. As regards her claim that the requirement that she work on Sundays was a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) that discriminated against Christians, the ET concluded that strict observance of the Sabbath was not a ‘core’ principle of Christian belief and her employer’s demand that she meet her contractual obligations was objectively justified within the meaning of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (now superseded by the Equality Act 2010). This claim was also dismissed, therefore.
The ET’s decision was subsequently upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal found that the ET had erred in law in finding that observance of the Sabbath as a rest day was not a core component of the Christian faith. It had been wrong to ask itself that question in that it was not necessary for the woman to establish that all or most Christians, or all or most non-Conformist Christians, would be put at a particular disadvantage by a requirement to work on Sundays.
The Court, however, found that the ET’s error of law had ‘made no difference’ to the outcome of the case. The requirement that the woman should work in accordance with her contract was not indirect religious discrimination as it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
This case should not be seen as giving employers the go-ahead to insist that employees work on Sundays. Whether or not this is permissible will depend on the specific circumstances of each particular case.