Defence Forces not justified in discriminating against atheist for ‘sensitive’ military chaplain role

Department of Defence argued humanist chaplain could undo years of work by army chaplains with religious fundamentalists in Lebanon

A prominent atheism campaigner was discriminated against by a failure to consider him for a military chaplain role, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has found, after rejecting the State’s argument that chaplains of “monotheistic belief” are needed to deal with religious and local leaders in sensitive conflict zones.

Witnesses for the Department of Defence argued a humanist chaplain could undo years of liaison work by army chaplains with religious fundamentalists in south Lebanon, including Hezbollah supporters, whom, it was argued, would be unlikely to accept a non-religious minister.

In a decision published on Wednesday, the WRC upheld John Hamill’s complaint of discrimination on the ground of religion against the Department of Defence, ruling that it was unlawful for the Defence Forces to recruit military chaplains solely from among Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland clergy.

An adjudicating officer found compensation was “not warranted” but ordered the Department to review its chaplaincy appointments process to “reflect and foster the diversity of members of the Defence Forces”.


At the hearing, the State noted the military had made Mass available on base during overseas missions for the 87.16 per cent of personnel who were Catholic. It said only one chaplain could be deployed at a time, and that the role of the chaplain in “force protection and counter-insurgency” in south Lebanon required a Christian, arguing that this objectively justified any differential treatment.

Frank Kennedy BL, instructed by Lorraine Williams of the Chief State Solicitor’s Office for the Department of Defence, said it was a “genuine and occupational requirement” for a military chaplain to have “first a monotheistic belief in God, and second the capacity to minister in that faith” during peacekeeping duties.

“The current Defence Forces requirements exclude all Muslims and Jews. There’s absolutely no evidence that the job has to be done by a Christian,” Mr Hamill countered at an equality hearing last year.

The tribunal heard last year that there were 15 Catholic chaplains in the Defence Forces and one from the Church of Ireland.

Mr Hamill said he had been told in July 2020 – after a year and a half of writing regularly to the Minister inquiring about chaplaincy appointments and stating his interest – that “existing provisions” would continue and bishops would continue to appoint chaplains with the approval of the Minister for Defence.

Documents released to him under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that an appointment had been made for a chaplain at Aiken Barracks in Dundalk on November 6th 2020, within two weeks of an inquiry letter, he told the tribunal.

“The Minister wrote back to the bishop and an appointment was made in one month – no interview,” Mr Hamill said, arguing that he had been excluded from consideration in a prima facie case of discrimination.

Mr Kennedy said that the Employment Equality Act provided for differential treatment based on a “genuine and determining occupational requirement”.

Just 5.6 per cent of personnel across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps identified themselves as having no religion, with a further 0.48 per cent – 41 in all – putting themselves down as atheists.

Giving evidence, Capt Martin McMahon, who told the hearing he had no religious beliefs, said chaplains had the military purpose of “religious leader engagement” as part of a strategy of “force protection and counter-insurgency”.

He said army chaplains had maintained links going back years with local religious figures in south Lebanon.

“Are local religious leaders more likely to engage with someone who believes in God?” Mr Kennedy asked him.

“I’ve only ever seen them interact with our chaplains. It’s hard to say how they would engage with someone who had no faith,” he said. “Quite often they tend to be a bit more traditional in their outlook.”

Capt McMahon said in the Irish Army’s area of operations, particularly in south Lebanon, there were many “fractured” religious beliefs, with people tending towards “the more fundamental aspects of their faith”.

“Do you believe that a religious chaplain of monotheistic belief helps to contribute to the safety of members overseas?” Mr Kennedy asked.

“It certainly contributes to force protection by dealings with religious leaders and local leaders,” Capt McMahon replied.

In cross-examination Mr Hamill put it to him that humanist chaplains might be better than Christians.

“In some of the villages they’re working in, particularly fundamentalist Christian villages, they would be better accepted than a humanist chaplain would be,” Capt McMahon said.

Mr Hamill asked him whether he had ever heard of western Europeans referred to as “crusaders” and put it to him that “some people would be more antagonistic to Christians than non-Christians”, to which Captain McMahon agreed.

The tribunal also took evidence from Fr Bernard McCay-Morrissey, a chaplain who had been deployed to south Lebanon with the Irish UNIFIL contingent.

He said during a recent rotation, a prominent local family with links to Hezbollah lost a son in a motorcycle crash and that this became a point of tension.

“The Muslims felt it was a great tragedy, others were less sympathetic,” he said.

Fr McCay-Morrissey said he went with a UN patrol to express condolences with the family and said that being an ordained minister of a “world religion” got the group past a “cool reception” with the family.

“If I’d gone to them as the medic, the intel officer, the CO [commanding officer] I might have been less well received,” Fr McCay-Morrissey said.

Mr Hamill had said earlier it was “absolutely outrageous, absolutely disgraceful that our Defence Forces are going around the world intervening in religiously-motivated conflicts in circumstances where it’s engaged in religious discrimination”, adding that he believed public money was being spent on proselytising.

Fr McCay-Morrissey said he would “absolutely not” give the last rites to a fatally wounded soldier without knowing their religious beliefs, or convert them on their deathbed.

“I’m not in the business of trying to convert people to my way of thinking,” Fr McCay-Morrissey told Mr Hamill under cross-examination, adding that Mr Hamill was mistaken when he stated that canon law bound him to proselytise.

In his decision, adjudicating officer Kevin Baneham rejected the State’s argument that the ability to go on deployment was a “determining occupational requirement” of the military chaplain’s job.

“I do not doubt the importance in respect of south Lebanon, but I find that it is not an objectively genuine and determining characteristic in respect of all the other missions and work of the Defence Forces. At most, it could be a mission requirement for UNIFIL,” he wrote.

“I have no doubt that religious leaders make very good military chaplains and would likely succeed during any assessment and interview process because of their pastoral work in the community. It is not, however, proportionate that no one else can apply or be considered for appointment,” he wrote, adding that it amounted to “unlawful discrimination” as he upheld Mr Hamill’s complaint.

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, who gave evidence at the WRC hearing, welcomed the ruling.

Praising Mr Hamill’s “tenacity”, he said the WRC decision “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.”

He said they had pointed out that about 9 per cent of Defence Forces personnel are non-Christian or have no religion, yet all chaplains are either Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland.

The WRC 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,” he said.

In 2019 Mr Hamill, described as a member of the Congregationalist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (CCFSM), failed in a discrimination action at the WRC over not getting free Luas travel on the day of the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park the previous August.

He claimed he had been indirectly discriminated against by the National Transport Authority (NTA) by refusing him free travel on the Luas on August 26th, 2018, to the Phoenix Park. This was on the same day the NTA allowed free travel to people who had tickets to attend the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park.