Light relief in fight on Shabbat sensors

By Simon Rocker, June 18, 2009

An Orthodox couple have made a claim for religious discrimination over sensor-operated lights outside their flat which they say stops them leaving it on Shabbat.

Gordon Coleman, the former chief executive of the Federation of Synagogues, and his wife Dena, the headteacher of Yavneh College in Hertfordshire, are suing the Embassy Court Residential Management Company in Bournemouth County Court.

The lights are triggered by body movements picked up by a sensor, which poses an insurmountable obstacle for religious Jews who refrain from turning on electrical appliances on Shabbat. The London-based Colemans use their Bournemouth flat at weekends.

In their claim form, the couple say they have been unable to enter or leave the flat from Friday night until Saturday evening since last September, or to invite Orthodox family or friends to stay with them.
They have only spent three weekends there since October, when they taped over the sensors to prevent them operating — after which they received a letter asking them not to “interfere” with the lights.
But a statement issued by the couple’s solicitors on Tuesday suggested a settlement may be close. It noted that at the recent annual meeting of the management company — which is owned by residents of the block’s 36 flats — residents “resolved to allow to allow the Colemans to install an override switch in the corridor outside their flat.

“This is the cheap and simple solution that the Colemans have been seeking all along. The Colemans have always said that they would pay for the installation of the switch and any additional electricity used.”
Explaining that the couple had launched legal action “as a last resort”, the statement added: “The Colemans are now waiting for the directors to inform them formally of this decision and to put forward proposals that will enable the court proceedings to be concluded.”
According to the court papers lodged in March, the Colemans were told when purchasing the property six years ago that there were no devices that would cause problems for observant Jews. But in September last year, the management company installed sensor-operated lights in the hallway and landings.

A spokesman for the company said this week that the move had been “part of energy efficiency improvements. This was designed to save electricity and the cost of having lights on 24 hours a day.”
In their claim form alleging breach of the lease covenant and religious discrimination, the Colemans state: “Jewish law does not permit Jews to switch on or off electrical appliances on the Sabbath and on the festivals.

“The prohibition derives from the biblical injunctions against kindling a light and against constructive work, which includes completing an electrical circuit. The prohibition applies whether the switching is done directly, for example, by flicking a switch by hand, or indirectly, for example, by a spoken command or by moving within range of a heat or movement sensor.”

They also claim that after they first proposed an override switch last autumn, the chairman of the management company responded that any modifications to the lighting controls would “set an unacceptable precedent”.

According to the management company spokesman: “The matter is subject to legal proceedings and the management company can make no further comment. We hope to reach an out-of-court settlement with them.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is considering support for the Colemans’ claim.

Last updated: 2:36pm, June 18 2009