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The imposition of Sunday working

11 January 2013

IN A RULING at the end of last month, Mr Justice Langstaff, president of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, upheld the view that treating Sunday as a day of rest was not a "core component" of Christian belief. He was discussing an employment-tribunal judgment in defence of a south-London council that disciplined a woman, Celestina Mba, for refusing to work a Sunday shift. Ms Mba subsequently resigned, and lost her case for constructive dismissal (News, 2 March 2012). The original judgment suggests that Ms Mba's employers in fact made substantial efforts over two years to accommodate her. The work was providing respite care for severely disabled children in a unit that is open seven days a week. The managers juggle a shift pattern that must take into account continuity, gender, cost, and seniority. In the end, attempts to accommodate Ms Mba's beliefs, never made contractually, were unsustainable, despite the willingness of some of Ms Mba's colleagues to cover for her. A defence document by Dr Michael Nazir-Ali stated that "some Christians" would not work on a Sunday.

Religion is an interior journey. The outward manifestations of the spiritual lives of a group of people can have common elements, many codified into moral rules and modes of behaviour; but it can be problematic if these manifestations are given too much weight, for the believers as well as for those who do not share their beliefs. The challenge is to construct and maintain a society that is essentially permissive, elevating those practices that most serve the common good, occasionally granting them legal support. As regards sabbatarianism, an uneasy pragmatism has taken precedence over religious reasoning. It remains the norm to treat Sunday as a day of rest; but with no common understanding of the concept, or of the consequences for others of a decision, say, to spend the day shopping, this norm is under threat.

It is still possible to find employment that does not involve Sunday working, but the trend is away from this, and, as usual, it is the low-paid who have the fewest choices. The efforts made to accommodate Ms Mba are encouraging, and symptomatic, we believe, of a general respect for religion and an individual's beliefs; but the outcome of her case was that this was a job that she could not do. There will be more like this. There has always been paid work that needs to be done on a Sunday; the question is whether this becomes the new norm. Already, the concept of financial compensation for Sunday working has largely gone. For the past decade or two, the Church has gone quiet on its long-argued defence of Sundays. If it wishes to preserve what remains, it must renew its reasoning for a common day of worship, family, friends, non-acquisition, and rest - not as a "core belief", but as a core value for the whole of society.


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