A local authority sacked a born-again Christian after he continued to preach his religious beliefs during work hours in spite of warnings from management.
Now, the Equality Tribunal has found that South Tipperary County Council discriminated against former executive engineer John McAteer on religious grounds and has ordered the local authority to pay him €70,000.
Prior to sacking Mr McAteer in July 2010, the council suspended him without pay for two months in 2009 and directed that he receive professional counselling for his compulsion to share his faith.
The tribunal found the effects of the dismissal on Mr McAteer “were very serious” and he has only succeeded in securing part-time work since his dismissal.
Mr McAteer has been an evangelical Christian since 1990 and the tenets of his religion require him to speak to people about Jesus.
He started work with South Tipperary County Council in December 2007, having worked the previous 10 years with North Tipperary County Council.
However, Mr McAteer was only five months in his new job when he was called to the council’s human resources department and told a complaint had been made against him about him sharing his faith with staff.
Mr McAteer was told to stop sharing his religious beliefs during work hours.
In May 2008, an official in the council’s human resources office, referred to as Mr A, saw Mr McAteer talk to a man for 20 minutes and two teenage girls for 10 minutes while waiting for a cycle race to go through Clonmel. The official approached the man and the teenagers and found out that Mr McAteer had been talking to them about his faith.
The official said he was concerned about the fact that Mr McAteer had disobeyed an instruction not to preach his personal beliefs to members of the public, and was further concerned that his actions would cause great damage to the integrity of the council, and reported the instances to his superior. Mr McAteer was subsequently called to a disciplinary meeting and a written warning was placed on his file.
In September 2008, Mr McAteer was issued with a final written warning after he was observed speaking to a motorcyclist about religion during work hours.
On February 13, 2009, Mr A saw Mr McAteer talk to a man for 18 minutes during lunchtime. After Mr McAteer departed, Mr A approached the man and learned that the conversation with Mr McAteer had mainly been about religion. Mr A sent a report on the incident to the town clerk, who appointed personnel to investigate the incident.
Mr McAteer told the investigation he was of the view that he could preach his religious beliefs during his lunch. He told investigators that his religious beliefs were a passion and he had a compulsion to share his faith. Mr McAteer said he found the policy of not preaching his religious beliefs too restrictive.
The council subsequently found Mr McAteer guilty of gross misconduct and suspended him without pay for two months, directing him to seek professional help.
Mr McAteer attended six counselling sessions.
In 2010, an engineering colleague witnessed Mr McAteer speak to an electrician about his religious beliefs and reported the incident to his superiors.
Mr McAteer was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct. The council argued at the tribunal that Mr McAteer was not discriminated against as he was free to practise his religion outside working hours.
The equality officer in the case, Marian Duffy, found that a significant number of council staff were appraised of Mr McAteer’s religious beliefs and “it is clear these staff were asked to monitor him given the number of staff who reported to management they saw the complainant speaking to a member of the public”.
She said that there was no evidence the council had been brought into disrepute by Mr McAteer’s actions.
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