Is it lawful to force a Christian employee, with deeply held beliefs about the Sabbath, to work on a Sunday?
Yes it is, according to the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Mba v. London Borough of Merton.
Mrs Mba was employed by Merton as a care officer in a home for disabled children with complex care needs. Her contract stated that she could be required to work on Sundays, and this is what the Borough sought to do. Mrs Mba argued that forcing her to work on a Sunday was indirectly discriminatory against Christians, because this has a disproportionate impact on them.
The legal issue
Indirect discrimination can be excused if it is justified, on the basis that there is a legitimate reason for the requirement, which goes no further than is necessary.
In this case the indirect discrimination could be justified, and therefore excused, as it was, amongst other things, aimed at providing an appropriate gender and seniority balance on each shift, providing fair treatment of other staff who were having to cover Sunday shifts disproportionately, and providing continuity of care for the children at the home. Merton had also made it possible for Mrs Mba to attend church on Sundays.
Implications for businesses
This case is a handy reminder that employees can be made to work against their religious convictions, but employers need to have taken into account the various alternatives to achieving their aims, and preferably to have established a paper trail. They are also well advised to make it clear in contracts of employment exactly what is required of their staff.
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