The requirement for military chaplains to belong to a recognised religious denomination is discriminatory, according to a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission brought by a humanist chaplain.
The commission has accepted a complaint from Justin Murray, a volunteer chaplain at Canberra hospital, meaning it will now investigate and conciliate the case which could open the way for atheists and agnostics to hold posts as military chaplains.
Australian army chaplains are required to be “from an endorsed denomination or faith group” represented in army personnel. The only categories currently recognised by the army are Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, the Uniting church, various other christian groups and the Council of Australian Jewry.
Murray – who is not religious – has lodged a complaint with the AHRC on the basis he is not eligible to apply and has therefore been discriminated against on the grounds of his religious belief.
On 17 July the AHRC wrote to Murray confirming it has accepted his complaint and promising to deal with it “as soon as possible” using its powers to assess, investigate and conciliate disputes.
Murray’s complaint argued that 53% of Australian Defence Force personnel are not religious, meaning there was “no provision” of pastoral services for “the majority of ADF personnel”.
Murray told Guardian Australia he was pleased the AHRC has accepted the complaint because he hopes to work as a military chaplain and is “concerned about people in the armed services not getting access to something others who are religious get access to.”
Murray works at Canberra hospital, serving the pastoral care needs of people who identify as humanist, atheist, agnostic, heretic, non-theist, pagan, wiccan, Pastafarian, spiritual but not religious, and other categories of no religion.
While religious chaplains at the hospital are paid through their churches or organisations, Murray volunteers. “We offer a listening ear for patients’ concerns … listening to how they’re travelling emotionally.”
“The health system can be very disempowering and frightening,” he said. “I’ve sat at the beds of people who are dying, to discuss their lives and deaths.”
Murray said patients are comforted by his presence but insists he is “getting the best part of the bargain”. “I get to bear witness to their worth as a human being.”
Murray said that secular humanists are the “vanilla ice cream of chaplains” because they can serve “100% of people”, whereas religious requirements can prevent other chaplains ministering to people of different faiths.
“I ask religious people: ‘What would you like to do?’. I’ve prayed with people. Praying to me is nothing but talking into the air but for them it’s meaningful. I’m there to help them.”
The AHRC complaint process allows the president of the commission to decide that international conventions against discrimination have been breached, triggering a report to the federal attorney general.
Associate professor Luke Beck of Monash University said there are also provisions in the federal Fair Work Act that prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of religion and the constitutional ban on the government setting a “religious test” for a public office, which could be the basis for separate court challenges.
Murray said he would be prepared to bring a court challenge if the AHRC process did not overturn the current military chaplains policy.
The school chaplains program – which received a $247m funding extension in the 2018 budget – has also been accused by secular groups of discriminating against the non-religious.
After the AHRC refused to initiate a review, the school chaplains program is now the subject of a complaint to the Victorian civil and administrative tribunal, which is set for a directions hearing on 11 September.