Atheist Ireland welcomes WRC ruling on religious discrimination in employing military chaplains

The Workplace Relations Commission has ruled that the Irish Defence Forces discriminated on the ground of religion against former Atheist Ireland officer John Hamill by not giving him an equal opportunity to apply for the position of military chaplain. The Irish Times reported on this yesterday, and John Hamill has blogged about it today and has published the full WRC ruling.

Atheist Ireland welcomes the ruling. John’s tenacity over four years has resulted in a more secular army. The ruling also vindicates the arguments made in 2021 by Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, in our joint submission to the Public Consultation Commission on the Defence Forces.

In that submission, we said the Defence Forces is a microcosm of society and should have a clear neutral policy on religion and belief. It should not be seen as promoting a particular religious belief or obliging personnel to participate in religious rites. We said that about 9% of Defence Forces personnel are non-Christian or have no religion, yet all Chaplains are either Roman Catholic (the majority) or Church of Ireland.

We highlighted that the chaplaincy website links military situational awareness with ‘deepening awareness of the role of faith’ and is illustrated by a Christian Bible passage from Exodus. Catholicism is part of the culture of the Defence Forces. A commitment to pluralism, diversity and inclusion is not part of the culture notwithstanding the fact that Ireland is pluralist country with different religions and nonreligious beliefs.

In times past and also today Defence Force personnel are coerced to take part in Catholic or Catholic-led religious ceremonies without any effort made to put in place rules/guidelines to ensure that they need not participate on the grounds of conscience.

That behaviour was and is unconstitutional. Regardless it is still is part of the culture of the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces have never apologised or even acknowledge that this behaviour breaches the rights of all and undermines our Constitution and human rights law.

The Defence Forces is a microcosm of society and should have a clear neutral policy on religion and belief. It should not be seen as promoting a particular religious belief or obliging personnel to participate in religious rites by including religious services in military events.

This ruling should result in a fair procedure for appointing chaplains and a wider reform of the influence of the Catholic church on our defence forces.

Relevant extracts from the ruling include:

On the 30th December 2020, the complainant referred a complaint pursuant to the Employment Equality Act. The complaint was scheduled for adjudication on the 8th March 2022, and this took place remotely… the complainant has been writing to the respondent since November 2018 regarding ‘religious discrimination in military chaplaincy’. This letter is on headed paper entitled ‘Atheist Ireland’…

In evidence under affirmation, Michael Nugent outlined that he had made representations on this issue on behalf of Atheist Ireland. He referred to the census returns and the increasing proportion of the population who identified themselves as non-religious.

The complainant (John) outlined that he had written to the respondent several times regarding the appointment of military chaplains in the Defence Forces. He indicated his interest in applying for the role of military chaplain. He submitted that the respondent was not a religious body, nor was it under the control of a religious body, so section 37 of the Employment Equality Act did not apply.

This case relates to the complainant’s expressed wish to apply for the role of chaplain in the Defence Forces. There was no process for him or anyone else to submit a formal application, and nor was he considered for appointment in November 2020. The question is whether discrimination occurred in the filling of this post of chaplain.

In this case, the respondent followed an established path of seeking a nomination from the relevant Bishop, and then appointed the priest put forward by that Bishop.

While there may be historical reasons for the appointment process as constituted, and no evidence of deficiency in the service, the process is, by operation, discriminatory on grounds of religion. Section 37(2) does not exempt this from the ambit of discrimination because being a priest or minister of one of two religions is not a ‘determining occupational characteristic’ and the requirement is not proportionate.

I, therefore, conclude that there was unlawful discrimination in contravention of the Employment Equality Act because there is no application process for potential applicants to apply for the role and the process that is in place is based entirely on being a clergy member of one of two churches.

I decide that the complainant was discriminated against on grounds of religion, and I order that the respondent review the process of appointing military chaplains to ensure compliance with the Employment Equality Act and to ensure that suitably-qualified candidates can apply for military chaplaincy roles in order to reflect and foster the diversity of members of the Defence Forces.”

Atheist Ireland