Here’s an update to last week’s post about a movement to curtail Sunday shopping in Europe. In that post, I speculated that allowing stores to open Sundays might create pressure for observant Christian employees: skip church and report to work, or lose your job. It turns out this concern isn’t speculative. In England, a High Court judge recently ruled that employers may discipline observant Christians who refuse to work Sundays.
The case involves Ms. Celestina Mba, who worked as a caregiver in a government-run children’s center. A devout Baptist, she goes to church every Sunday and does not wish to work on that day. When her employer—-a government agency, note, in a state with an established church—-pressured her to work Sundays, she quit and sued for employment discrimination. She lost at trial and, last month, in the High Court as well.
Why did she lose? English law allows employers to require employees to work Sundays if there is “a legitimate business need.” According to press reports, though, the High Court did not rely on that principle in Ms. Mba’s case. Rather, the court reasoned that Christianity did not require Sabbath observance in the first place. Plenty of Christians work Sundays, the court noted; only a few, like Ms. Mba, see it as a problem. As a result, religious freedom was not seriously implicated by requiring her to work. Employers, the court reasoned, do not need to accommodate outliers like Ms. Mba.
Now, this reasoning is very odd. The fact that some of those Christians who work Sundays might be doing so because they have to —-that is, because otherwise they would lose their jobs—-apparently did not occur to the court. Moreover, the fact that many Christians see no problem with working Sundays doesn’t mean that other Christians cannot have a legitimate religious objection. Courts don’t usually require that practices be “mainstream” within a religion in order to receive legal protection. Besides, attending church on Sundays is hardly an esoteric practice in Christianity. Many Christians are known to do it—-though not in today’s England, I guess.
Something strange is happening in the U.K. It’s not just Ms. Mba’s case. In a separate case currently pending at the European Court of Human Rights , the British government has taken the position that employers may fire Christian employees who wear crosses to work. Again, the argument is that religious freedom doesn’t apply in such situations. Why? Because wearing a cross is not “generally recognized” by Christians as a religious requirement: most Christians don’t wear crosses, so individual Christians don’t have a right to wear them. But where’s the sense in that? Most Christians don’t carry Bibles around with them, either. Does that mean forbidding Christians from carrying Bibles would not implicate religious freedom?
We’ll see in the next several months what the European Court makes of all this. I wonder whether Ms. Mba will apply to that court for relief in her case. I note she is represented by British religious rights lawyer Paul Diamond, who argued the cross-wearing case at the European Court last fall. You can watch the argument here .
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.