By Hilary White

READING, UK, May 26, 2008 ( – Backed by the vociferously anti-Christian British Humanist Association (BHA), an Employment Tribunal has ruled that a Christian learning disabled charity may not maintain its policy of hiring exclusively practising Christians. The employment tribunal judged that the charity, Prospects, may not implement a policy of hiring only believing Christians on its staff on the grounds that it receives public funding and has hired non-Christians in the past. Further, the Tribunal ruled that a religious organisation was not qualified to judge what constitutes a “religious ethos” for purposes of hiring policies.

The Tribunal in Abergele, North West Wales this weekend ruled that only a court, not the organisation itself, may make an objective assessment of what constitutes its “religious ethos”.

The suit was brought by Prospects employee Mark Sheridan, financed by the BHA, who was a manager who objected to being asked to hire only Christians. In a second case, not backed by the BHA, Louise Hender claimed she was denied a promotion because she was not a Christian.

Prospects is a charity that helps learning-disabled people, teaching life and employment skills and offering residential support. The charity had previously employed a number of non-Christian staff and volunteers. In 2004 it began recruiting only practising Christians for almost all posts, and told existing non-Christian staff that they were no longer eligible for promotion. Prospects offers its services to people with learning disabilities regardless of their religious beliefs.

Prospects had required all full-time employees to sign an agreement saying they were committed to its “Basis of Faith” that is the organisation’s “religious ethos”. The agreement outlined the basic beliefs of Christianity such as the existence of God and salvation through Jesus Christ. It did not make any demands on employee’s behaviour other than requiring them to “accept and work within both the Christian ethos and the policies of Prospects”.

In its early days, since its founding in 1974, Prospects was funded by contributions from families and churches. Staff were encouraged to regard their work as part of their Christian vocation.

Since accepting public funding, the organisation also began to hire staff and volunteers who were not Christians. In December 2003, the organisation’s head, Paul Ashton, issued a memo saying that Prospects wanted to recapture its original Christian ethos and purpose and that it would be maintaining the need for all staff positions to be held by believing Christians.

The British Humanist Association called the decision a “landmark” that will broadly affect the right of Christian charities in the UK. Under current British law, religious organisations may maintain a religious hiring policy, but only if they can show that a particular religious belief is a “genuine occupational requirement”.

Hanne Stinson, BHA Chief Executive, said, “A clear message has been sent out by this decision: that blanket discrimination in employment policies and practices on grounds of religion or belief is simply unacceptable, and that an instruction to discriminate against someone on the basis of that person’s religion or belief will be unlawful.”

The group says they are considering the tribunal’s judgement and “at the earliest opportunity will consider the appropriateness of the grounds for a possible appeal”.

Governments in the UK and abroad are increasingly hostile to Christian organisations that attempt to maintain their religious identity. A very recent similar case in Canada ended when a Christian charity abandoned its employee code of conduct after a Human Rights Tribunal judged that it discriminated unfairly against people involved in the homosexual “lifestyle”. Ontario-based Christian Horizons was fined $23,000 as punishment for attempting to maintain a Christian code of conduct for employees.

In a statement similar to that of the BHA, Barbara Hall, the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission opined, “This decision is important because it sets out that when faith-based and other organizations move beyond serving the interests of their particular community to serving the general public, the rights of others, including employees, must be respected.”

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