The Court of Appeal has held that an employee’s belief that they should not work on a particular day does not have to be a core part of their religion in order to fall under religious discrimination legislation – the belief must simply be sincerely held in order to be protected. However, requiring an employee to work on a religious day of rest can be objectively justified if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
In Mba v London Borough of Merton, the claimant was a care worker who worked in a care home. She claimed that requiring her to work on Sundays constituted indirect discrimination on the ground of her religion.
Ms Mba’s appeal was dismissed because, although the requirement to work on Sundays put her at a disadvantage, the employer was able to establish that there was really no viable or practicable way of providing the care service other than by requiring all care workers to work some Sunday shifts. This meant that the employer was able to objectively justify the requirement as a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims of ensuring an appropriate gender and seniority balance on each shift, cost-effectiveness, fair treatment of all staff and continuity of care for the children at the home.
In deciding that the employer's actions had been proportionate, the tribunal noted that it had made efforts to accommodate Ms Mba's wishes for two years; was prepared to arrange Sunday shifts in a way that enabled Ms Mba to attend church; and that Ms Mba's belief regarding Sunday working was not a core component of the Christian faith.
The Court of Appeal upheld the decision that the discrimination could be objectively justified but stated that the tribunal was wrong to give weight to the fact that not working on a Sunday was not a core component of the Christian faith. What mattered was whether it was a sincere belief.
When considering a request from an employee to adjust his or her working conditions to accommodate their religious beliefs, employers should be wary of getting drawn into an assessment of whether the particular belief is a core part of the employee’s religion. The important point is that the employee has a sincere belief held by some of his or her religion; the fact that it is not widely shared by others is not a reason to dismiss the request out of hand. Proper consideration should be given as to whether the request can be accommodated.