Religious Liberty in the Workplace

Jonathan Gibson, Harrogate, England

Precious Seed

A Review of a booklet published by the Christian Institute

THIS IS AN ARTICLE IN OUR PERIODIC PASTORAL SERIES

Can I share my faith in the workplace? Can I object where my employer has asked me to undertake duties that are contrary to my Christian conscience? Should I be allowed time off because of church services?

These and other important questions are tackled in Religious Liberty in the Workplace, published by The Christian Institute and freely available on their website under the tab ‘resources’, then ‘publications’, then ‘religious liberty’.

The booklet is written by Mark Jones, a solicitor specializing in employment law. The document does not purport to be any more than a general guide for Christian employees and freely acknowledges that specific advice should always be sought on individual circumstances.

That said, the guidance given is likely to be useful to Christians in employment in the UK for whom these questions do arise. The law may be different in other jurisdictions (see Note 1) but some of the general guidance may (depending on local circumstances) still be helpful to those living in other parts of the world, particularly the positive lines of approach suggested when believers are faced with such challenging problems.

The first section of the booklet is a brief introduction, highlighting the fundamental concepts of contract, human rights and anti-discrimination law. It is important to point out that employment law may well protect Christians in certain situations, for example, where a Christian is treated less favourably than other employees because of his or her faith.

The next section, entitled, ‘Particular considerations for Christians’ emphasizes the importance of taking a stand as a Christian employee, for example, in relation to blasphemy. The author points out that if we do not, and instead go along with the view that it is unacceptable to say certain things are sinful, ‘the more we may become part of the problem: when someone does stick their head above the parapet it is more likely to appear extreme’. In relation to blasphemy he points out that if we had zero tolerance of it, such words would jar much more than they do now in many workplaces. He also suggests that Christians could offer their experience to their employer to assist in establishing informed working practices.

The remainder (and main part) of the Guidance comprises answers to ten specific questions often raised by Christian employees. In addition to the questions mentioned at the beginning of this article, questions such as, ‘Can I send Christmas cards to my colleagues?’ and ‘I am being asked to wear an immodest uniform – can I refuse?’ are considered.

It is noticeable that, to many of these questions, there is not always a definitive answer. As with many legal situations considerations of reasonableness and the balance of competing rights apply. There are a number of helpful suggestions along the way for Christian employees who may be concerned about what they can say or do within the workplace. So, when answering the question, ‘Can I give a Christian opinion on controversial topics?’, it is suggested that it may be more acceptable to put something in the context of a personal view, rather than stating it as a bold fact without a reference point for that view. So expressions such as, ‘As a Christian I believe that . . .’, or ‘The Bible says that . . . ‘ are recommended by the author.

One question deals with the subject of employees who are obliged to work on Sundays against their wishes. The author refers to the Employment Rights Act 1996 and a provision enabling some employees to serve notice on their employer that they are not willing to work on Sundays. It is also pointed out that the law in this area has been developed through a number of reported cases and three of the main ones, Copsey v. Devon Clays, Williams- Drabble v. Care Solutions and Edge v. Visual Security Services are mentioned, along with the relevant ACAS Guide (see Note 2). A simple search on one of the main internet search engines will provide some further information on these cases. UK legislation is freely available at www.opsi.gov.uk. This section of the book-let is interesting as it demonstrates, to some extent, how law works. There is not necessarily a ‘right’ answer which covers every situation. Rather, principle has to be applied and adapted to the particular circumstances. It follows that not every Christian who does not want to work on a Sunday will be able to avoid doing so. However, some may be able to argue that their employer has not made ‘reasonable adjustment’ to accommodate their genuinely held beliefs. As is explained in the booklet, a policy requiring Sunday working may, in some circumstances, have such a disproportionate effect on Christian employees as to amount to unlawful indirect discrimination.

When addressing the issue of sharing our faith in the workplace, a strategy on how to react to a blanket ban on so doing is suggested, involving dialogue with the employer. It is also pointed out that the ACAS Guide advises that ‘a ban on discussions about [Christianity] may create more bad feeling amongst staff and cause more problems than it solves’. Thus it should be possible to make some progress in this area, saving unnecessary conflict. Also on this topic, it is pointed out that there is a difference between reasonable dis-cussion and offensive behaviour. Whilst many find the message of the gospel an offence, no believer should engage in offensive behaviour in order to preach the word. Such behaviour could well amount to harassment of others.

‘I am worried that I might be accused of being homophobic’. The author expresses his view that, ‘the term “homophobic” should never properly be applicable to a Christian. Our words and actions should never derive from hatred or an irrational fear of those who would put us under any form of pressure, sexual or otherwise. However, it must be recognized that this is how expressing the church’s orthodox position on sexual sin may be perceived or described by some’. Again, how Christians explain their belief is important and helpful guidance is given in this respect. If the employer promotes practices which Christians find unacceptable, a practical way forward is suggested which involves a careful approach to the employer, rather than the Christian charging in ‘like a bull in a china shop’.

There is a strong message for Christians who are obliged to act contrary to their conscience by their employers. A quotation is given from a case involving the Christian Institute and concerning the Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation Regulations. ‘In giving his decision, Mr Justice Weatherup referred favourably to the Canadian case of Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Brockie. He summarized the approach to religious conscience in the Brockie case by saying that a believer is ‘not required’ to undertake action that promotes that which the essence of the belief teaches to be wrong’. This whole section of the booklet deserves careful reading.

Whether in employment or not, all are likely to find this booklet interesting reading and, for some, the advice contained within it may prove timely.

Note 1: I understand that, generally speaking, employment law is similar throughout the UK. However, the position is not altogether the same in relation to discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief where different provisions apply in Northern Ireland.

Note 2: Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. ACAS is a statutory body that assists with the resolution of workplace disputes.

Note 3: I am not a specialist in employment law and is therefore am not in a position to comment upon the quality or accuracy of the advice in the booklet.

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