Is making staff work on Sundays discriminatory?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
2 Mar 2012

In February 2012, an employment tribunal in England ruled that it was acceptable for a Christian worker to lose her job for refusing to work on Sundays.

Unlike a number of other recent cases where religious beliefs have been used as an excuse for discriminating against others, this is probably a genuine instance of unjust (though indirect) discrimination on grounds of religion.

Shift patterns and employees’ circumstances

According to news reports, 57-year-old Celestina Mba lost her claim for constructive dismissal after resigning from her job at Brightwell children’s home, a respite centre for disabled children run by Merton Council. Apparently, Mba had explained when she took on the job in 2007 that she would have difficulty in working on Sundays, and this was accommodated, as had happened with previous employers. She was able to swap shifts with colleagues.

A member of the ministerial team at a Baptist church, she believed that “Christianity requires Sundays off. The Bible asks us to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. It’s about much more than going to Church. I spend the whole day helping others in the community – some of whom have no one to be there for them.” This included “teaching, visiting people in hospitals and prisons”.

This also helped her carry out her caring responsibilities: “That's how I was edified, so I could come out and work with these children and give them the best. You need to be empowered yourself before you can empower others.”

But in 2008 she was told she had to work on Sundays, and threatened with disciplinary action. The director of children, schools and families later explained, "As a local authority, we have a duty to ensure our children with disabilities who need weekend care are supported by carers who are familiar with their specific needs."

Though the Council was willing to let her go to church if she came to work afterwards, and she was willing to work on Saturdays and do night shifts, in the end no agreement could be reached. She resigned in 2010.

The needs of service users must indeed be met. Yet good employment practice also means taking account of the particular circumstances of each worker. This also enables workplaces to draw on the talents of a wider range of people.

There may be some jobs where availability on Sundays is a necessity, but this type of work for a local authority in London would not appear to be one of them. Surely a good employer would be expected to accommodate, for instance, employees’ childcare and other caring responsibilities, even if it required extra effort to organise shifts accordingly?

Religious requirements

The tribunal reportedly reached the view that the Council’s stance was not discriminatory partly because different Christians have different positions on Sunday working. Judge Heather Williams QC stated that “While the claimant’s belief is deeply held it is not a core component of Christian faith.” This is, I think, a misunderstanding of the law.

Practices often vary widely within faith traditions. To quote the Equality and Human Rights Commission website, “A chief executive introduces a ‘no headwear’ rule for all staff. This would put Sikh men who wear a turban and Jewish men who wear a kippah at a disadvantage. This is an example of indirect religious discrimination, and would need to be justified otherwise it may be unlawful.” Yet not all Sikh men wear turbans, or Jewish men kippahs.

In Mba’s case, a statement submitted to support her by former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali may have led to confusion. He had written: “Some Christians will not work on the Sabbath (except for mercies), others may work only in an emergency; some Christians will want to wear a cross to manifest their faith, others will manifest their faith in some other way.”

This does not fully reflect the collective – though not universal – nature of Sunday observance. One Baptist church website in England may state that “There are no grounds for imposing the Hebrew Sabbath on the Christian. The Christian is free from the burden of the law. The Spirit of Christ enables him to fulfil God’s will without from external observance of the law’s demands.” Yet another proclaims that “Our attitude to the Lord’s Day is a sure test of how much we love God. When two people love one another, they want to spend time together without distraction. What would you think of a young man who said he loved a girl but never wanted to be with her? If we love God, we will look forward eagerly to the one day each week we have set aside for God… The Sabbath is for God. We’re not free to use it for our own entertainment. We’re not free to give it to our employers or to our relatives.”

If someone has for many years attended a church where this is the norm, it would not be easy for her to set this aside.

Very few practices are universal among Christians, from celebrating Holy Communion to refusing to kill. Yet, if a plausible case can be made that the Bible forbids a particular practice (even if there may be other interpretations), this is supported by aspects of Christian tradition and millions of people internationally understand this to be part of their faith, demanding that an employee carry out this activity is likely to affect Christians disproportionately.

This is entirely different from allowing staff or providers of public services to impose their own morality on others. For instance, a hospital nurse who would himself refuse a blood transfusion on religious grounds cannot refuse to help a patient having a transfusion. A firefighter can refuse alcoholic drinks, but not to put out a fire in a pub.

Likewise, just as hotel owners were found to have discriminated unlawfully by refusing a room to a gay couple, an ardent atheist in charge of a hotel – even if he would not pray himself – cannot turn away a Christian couple because he does not want prayers said in his establishment. Hence the law protects people of different faiths and none.

Addressing religious discrimination

While discrimination against Christians is rare in the UK, it seems likely that this took place in Mba’s case, albeit unintentionally.

This does not indicate that Christians are being persecuted, and indeed such overblown claims (especially when, for instance, the established church has certain privileges) reduce the credibility of genuine instances in which faith-based discrimination does occur.

Clearer guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on avoiding discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, and in general greater awareness of equalities law and good practice, would reduce the likelihood of such problems in future.

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© Savi Hensman works in the equalities and care sector. She is an Ekklesia associate and a respected commentator on society, politics and religion, writing for the Guardian among other outlets.

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