Wednesday 24 August 2016

Talking God in the office might be boring but it hardly counts as a sacking offence

Published 31/07/2014 | 02:30

Mr McAteer said that he was sharing the word of Jesus and the Gospel with people
Mr McAteer said that he was sharing the word of Jesus and the Gospel with people

Fortunately, it's not a sacking offence to be the office bore, even if droning on about your pet subject irritates colleagues. Otherwise, a great many sports fans would be shown the door. Out of work, too, would be fitness-fixated people who insist on sharing every detail of their gym regime. Obsessive calorie-counters would be gone, not to mention parents and dog-owners who expect everyone to share their infatuation.

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But South Tipperary County Council concluded it was acceptable to fire an employee because he was a born again Christian, who found he couldn't help speaking about his religious beliefs to co-workers and members of the public. A recent Equality Tribunal ruling has shown the council the error of its ways.

It might be a relief for council staff not to have someone quoting the Bible at them over their morning coffee, when they'd prefer to discuss politics, or the latest plot twist in their favourite soap, or just to be left in peace. But God talk at work is hardly fair grounds for dismissal - even when warnings are given. People should lose their jobs for incompetence. Not because we dislike what they say.

The world is full of bores: we all have to learn to live and let live. However, council management took a less broad-minded stance, where they sacked an evangelical Christian - a civil engineer - for too much Jesus chat. A nuisance to listen to, presumably, but he had a right to express his convictions openly so long as the habit didn't interfere with his work.

The tribunal upheld John McAteer's complaint that he was the subject of religious discrimination, and awarded him €70,000. The award has generated a certain amount of controversy, with some suggesting a desire to foist religious beliefs on others during working hours is beyond the pale.

But freedom of speech is a pillar of democracy. Someone's right to be wrong, or dull, must always be defended. Tolerance can't be restricted to those with whom we agree. Religion, of course, is a contentious subject. If Mr McAteer hadn't been discussing his faith, it seems unlikely it would have become such a poisonous issue with colleagues, or cost him his job.

He was accused of preaching to people, which wasn't borne out by the evidence before the tribunal. What he did in the first instance was try to engage colleagues in conversation about Jesus during his lunch break. Dismissal seems a harsh measure. Especially as there was no evidence his work was impaired, or his colleagues' work was affected, or that his behaviour brought the council into disrepute.

A core belief for a born again Christian is the requirement actively to share the Gospel. For doing this, he was singled out by his employer, received warnings, and told he couldn't talk about his faith during office hours, including rest periods. Now, what real harm was he doing? How offensive is it to hear that Jesus loves us? If we object to a subject we can walk away, or tell the speaker - as politely or impolitely as we choose - to stop talking.

It's not as if he climbed on a desk and began preaching. He didn't hand out bibles to co-workers. If we can't shrug off someone's unsolicited remarks about God in their life, our tolerance levels are dangerously low. Maybe Mr McAteer was over-zealous. But that's a sacking offence? Strangely, his employer insisted he attend counselling sessions, as if he had a disorder. Why assume someone needs treatment if they are a born again Christian?

There was only one complaint from a staff member at Clonmel Borough Council, where he worked. No evidence was advanced of complaints from the public. The tribunal heard he did not continue telling colleagues about God after receiving a warning. In its verdict, it noted there was no evidence that what he did was "either offensive, inappropriate or constituted harassment". So he knew when to back off.

But staff were asked to monitor him, and report to management if they saw him speaking to members of the public about his religious beliefs. That's suspiciously like spying on a colleague - a nasty approach. As for the order from his employer not to mention his religious beliefs during his lunch break - how totalitarian. Since when do employers have the right to tell staff what they can and can't talk about? I wouldn't particularly enjoy being on the receiving end of one of Mr McAteer's conversations, but I defend his right to attempt to interest me in a subject about which he feels passionately.

Freedom of religion is protected in the Constitution. Evangelists are required to talk about it, as a way of converting others: this is an expression of faith. Catholics in the council were allowed time off to attend Mass, so the expression of their faith was facilitated. Not so for the practitioner of a minority religion. Meaning one religion was prioritised above the other.

He was fired for the "inappropriate promotion of his faith" to members of the public during working hours. But what I find inappropriate is a public body trying to curtail freedom of speech, and running up a bill of €70,000 of taxpayers' money - plus legal costs - before accepting it should treat all employees even-handedly. If there was any justice, Mr McAteer ought to be given back his job.

Let's bear in mind that a pluralist society includes the freedom to hold strong religious convictions.

Irish Independent

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