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Court of Appeal recognises Sunday as Christian rest day

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The Court of Appeal issued a judgment this week in the case of children's worker, Celestina Mba. Importantly, it gives legal recognition to the fact that Sunday is a day of worship and rest for many Christians and so is, in principle, worthy of protection. 

Positive development 

This is a very positive step because the Court dismissed earlier rulings in the case that claimed that Sunday 'is not a core component of the Christian faith'. 

These tribunals had suggested that, since not all Christians observe Sunday as a day of rest, it’s not a ‘core component’ of Christianity (with the implication that it therefore enjoys little protection). 

The Court of Appeal has rightly said that it was an ‘error of law’ to apply such a test, and held that beliefs about Sunday were in principle protected.  

This is a significant step forward, and reduces an otherwise huge hurdle in cases such as Celestina's. It means that there are greater protections, in principle, for those Christians who hold that Sunday is special.

It should also help to secure greater protections for other Christian beliefs and behaviour.  

Pressure to work on Sundays

Ms Mba resigned from her job at a Children’s home operated by Merton Council after being put under pressure to work on Sundays.

An Employment Tribunal had found that the committed Christian ‘genuinely believed’ that she had made it clear at her job interview that she was unable to work on Sundays owing to her faith. An initial agreement respected her Christian faith and she didn’t work on Sundays. But after two years her employer sought to change the arrangement.

Disturbingly, from 2009 onwards, knowing that she would refuse, Merton Council ordered Celestina to work on Sundays and then sought to discipline her.

Celestina Mba, said:  “They were trying to break my faith and see if I really believed in the Lord’s Day.  Merton disrespected my Christian faith.  I said to the Court that the Council would not treat other faiths like they treat Christians.  It was like giving pork to a Muslim every meal-time and then disciplining them for not eating it!

“If they really needed someone to work on a Sunday, they should have recruited that person and I would have been glad to leave.  I had offered to take unpopular shifts and work anti-socials in order to protect Sundays.”

‘Error in law’

Paul Diamond, her barrister, argued that the onus was on her employer to seek reasonable accommodation for the employee and that the employers must act conscientiously. 

The Court of Appeal found that the earlier courts had applied the wrong test to Merton’s decision. Lord Justice Maurice Kay said “I am satisfied that there was an error of law in the decision of the ET and that it was repeated in the judgment of the EAT.”

However, in spite of this, the Appeal Court refused to reconsider the findings of facts made by the Employment Tribunal or to order a new hearing to apply the correct test to the facts of the case. Thus, the dismissal of Celestina was upheld.

In his ruling, Lord Justice Maurice Kay concluded: “After the most anxious consideration, I have come to the conclusion that, in all the circumstances of this case, and notwithstanding the legal errors to which I have referred, the decision of the ET that the imposition of the PCP was proportionate was ‘plainly and unarguably right’.”

Nonetheless we are encouraged by much in this judgment

‘Big Step Forward’

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Ms Mba, said: “We believe if the Court of Appeal had been prepared to consider the facts according to the correct test, Celestina would have won.  The onus should be on the employer to reasonably accommodate their employee. 

“However, this judgment is a big step forward for proper treatment of Christians and is an important victory.  At last the courts are beginning to demonstrate greater understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Christian identity extends beyond private belief into daily life. We pray that the tide is turning. 

“Celestina Mba was popular and highly respected amongst colleagues and the children for whom she cared. She loved her job and she has paid a high price for her Christian faith.”

Legal impact

The significance of the judgment has already been recognised by lawyers, with Michelle Last, employment lawyer at Stevens & Bolton, commenting: “When you look past that Ms Mba lost her claim on the particular facts, the decision does open up the field for other claimants.”

Barrister and legal commentator Neil Addison said: "The decision, though it does not help Mrs Mba will certainly make it easier to bring and to win claims of Religious Discrimination. The disgraceful decision by the Court of Appeal in Ladele v London Borough of Islington ... that Mrs Ladele's belief in the sanctity of marriage was not a 'core' part of her religion has now been finally put to rest. This should avoid Courts and Tribunals in the future being driven into arguments about theology which the House of Lords in Williamson had accepted are outside the competence of secular courts."

Related stories:

Christian asks Court of Appeal to overturn Employment Appeal Tribunal decision on Sunday Working

Court says Christians don’t keep Sunday’s special for it to be protected

Christian children’s worker who was forced to resign loses case

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