Landmark decision rules religious ministers have right to claim unfair dismissal

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled in a landmark decision that ministers of religion are entitled to claim unfair dismissal.

Ministers of religion have until now always been regarded by the UK courts as appointed to a holy office, and not as employees of a church. However, the EAT has today held that ministers are entitled to claim unfair dismissal against churches.

The decision has enormous ramifications for all religious organisations as they have previously enjoyed immunity from being sued for unfair dismissal.

Reverend Sylvester Stewart was removed as pastor from the Harrow, north-west London, congregation of the New Testament Church of God in June 2005, due to allegations of financial impropriety.

He claimed unfair dismissal, which the New Testament Church of God resisted on the grounds that he was not its employee, and therefore he could not bring a claim against it.

But the EAT rejected this argument, stating “if the relationship between church and minister has many of the characteristics of a contract of employment, these cannot be ignored simply because the duties are of a religious or pastoral nature”.

Barrister Daniel Barnett, representing Stewart, said: “The government has been considering granting employment law rights to ministers for several years. The courts have given up waiting.

“Ministers tend to religious needs on behalf of a church, just as medical staff tend to physical needs on behalf of an NHS trust, but nobody would suggest that medical staff should be denied employment rights.”

The New Testament Church of God is seeking permission to appeal this decision. If that is denied, the case will return to the employment tribunal to decide whether Stewart was fairly or unfairly dismissed.

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