News & Views

Sunday working and religious HR

BY Anita Mulholland
Employment law
BG Purple

It should not come as a surprise to any employer to learn that they are expected to take steps to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs within the workplace. 

This may involve adjustments to uniform policies, provision of prayer rooms or allowing time off for religious worship.  In many cases, employers can accommodate such changes without difficulty; however in other cases the position is not so simple. 

A recent Court of Appeal case, Mba v London Borough of Merton gives an instructive example of the balance to be struck between the interests of employer and employee.  In this case, Ms Mba was a care worker in a children’s home.  She had a strong Christian belief in the sanctity of the Sabbath.  Although her contract of employment stated that she would have to work shifts, including weekends, for the first years of her employment, the Council was able to accommodate her request not to work on a Sunday.  This arrangement, however, impacted on the ability of the Council to effectively manage the staffing of the care home, and eventually Ms Mba was disciplined for her continued refusal to work on a Sunday.  As a result of this she resigned and claimed constructive dismissal and religious HR. 

At first instance, the tribunal found for the Council.  It held that Ms Mba’s refusal to work on a Sunday interfered with the effective running of the service and caused issues with staffing and increased costs.  It further went on to find that Ms Mba’s views on the sanctity of the Sabbath were not a ‘core’ part of Christian belief. 

Ms Mba appealed all the way to the Court of Appeal.  In particular, she attacked the tribunal’s finding that her strict Sabbatarian beliefs were not a ‘core’ part of her faith; a finding that would cause some surprise among many with Christian beliefs (and clearly the tribunal had never visited the Western Isles). 

The Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal’s findings on this aspect of the claim, following the European Court of Human Rights’ decision in Eweida v UK, where it was found that the wearing of a cross, while not a core component of many Christian’s beliefs, was nonetheless a manifestation of those beliefs and hence deserving of protection. 

However, while finding for Ms Mba on this point, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the tribunal, on the basis that it was proportionate, in the circumstances of the job that she was employed to do, to require her to work on Sundays.  

The case is a useful reminder for employers that the right of employees to have their religious beliefs accommodated within the workplace is not absolute.  It requires a balancing act between the rights of the employee and the needs of the business. It will not always be possible to accommodate an individual’s religious beliefs, particularly where this will involve substantial inconvenience and/or expense to the employer. 

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