A devoutly Christian care worker who complained of religious discrimination after her local authority employer required her to work on Sundays has failed in her landmark fight for compensation – but only at the final hurdle.
In a ruling which opens the way for the introduction of human rights legislation to employment cases through the back door, the Court of Appeal accepted that an employment tribunal (ET) was precluded from asking itself the question of whether observance of the Sabbath day is a ‘core component of the Christian faith’.
However, in dismissing the woman’s appeal, the Court found that her employers had ‘no viable or practicable alternative’ but to require her to work on Sundays and that the requirement, which accorded with the terms of her contract, was ‘a proportionate means of achieving an indisputably legitimate aim’.
There was no dispute that the woman had a genuine religious objection to working on the Sabbath. Her contract stated that she had to make herself available for shift rotas at weekends; however her employers had tried to adjust her working hours so that she could attend Church on Sundays.
The requirement led to the woman’s eventual resignation, ‘with regret’, and she launched employment tribunal (ET) proceedings, claiming constructive unfair dismissal and religious discrimination. Both claims were rejected in a decision which was later upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.
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 noted that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights cannot be directly enforced in employment tribunals as such considerations fall outside their statutory jurisdiction. However, it found that the woman’s rights under Article 9 of the Convention, which enshrines the right to religious freedom, should nevertheless have been treated as persuasive by the ET.
Noting that all domestic legislation should, wherever possible, be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the Convention, the Court found that Article 9 was relevant to the ET’s consideration of whether the requirement was proportionate. It was, in the circumstances, inappropriate for the ET to ask itself whether observance of the Sabbath was a core component of the Christian faith.
The Court, however, found that the ET’s error of law had ‘made no difference’ to the outcome of the case and that the requirement that the woman should work in accordance with her contract was proportionate. A remittal of the claim to the ET for reconsideration would inevitably lead to the same result.