Israel Folau should be able to express his religious views without fear of sanction from Rugby Australia, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
On 10 April, Folau posted the graphic below on Instagram, saying: ‘Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.’
Later, on the same day as Folau’s most recent social media post, Rugby Australia issued a statement, saying: ‘The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the rugby community.’
The following day, Rugby Australia said it intended to terminate the player’s contract.
‘While Israel is entitled to his religious beliefs, the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport,’ the organisation explained. Folau has since appealed the breach notice and will have a code of conduct hearing.
The 30-year-old has been heavily criticised by the likes of former teammate Drew Mitchell, current teammate Will Genia and openly gay referee Nigel Owens, but his Instagram post was liked by several rugby players, including England No 8 Billy Vunipola, whose Instagram post supporting Folau resulted in a warning from Saracens and the RFU.
Folau also received support from an unlikely place – Liberal Australian member of parliament Tim Wilson, who is gay and proposed to his husband-to-be in parliament while speaking on the same-sex marriage bill in 2017.
‘There is a need for people to be able to express their views on something like religion, and their religious beliefs, without censorship,’ said Wilson, who also had a warning for Rugby Australia.
‘I don’t know the details of the EBA [enterprise bargaining agreement] or the contractual arrangements that sit between them [Rugby Australia] and Israel Folau, but I would have thought that Rugby Australia should be very cautious in how they are conducting themselves.
‘Rugby isn’t just a game for people who are agnostic or atheist. In a free, pluralistic democracy, that should have space for everybody to express their opinion.
‘Quoting the Bible or reciting a well-established position around morality and private morality I don’t think crosses that line.’
I agree with Wilson. Folau should be able to express his religious views without censorship, and Rugby Australia needs to be very careful in terms of how it handles this situation.
Folau’s views do not constitute hate speech in my opinion – he did not call for gays to be discriminated against, hurt or killed – and while Rugby Australia says his comments go against rugby’s ‘values’, no one has explained how those values were determined and who were consulted during that process.
I should make it crystal clear that I disagree wholeheartedly with Folau’s views on homosexuality. I happen to be gay myself and agnostic. Folau no doubt puts agnostics in the same boat as atheists, so if he’s right, I too am destined for hell. Of the ‘sinners’ listed on his Instagram post, ‘gays’ are the only ones who don’t have a choice when it comes to who/what they are, so my advice to him would be to live his life and let gays live theirs.
However, I will defend Folau’s right to express his religious views – even if I disagree with them – and don’t believe he should be punished for doing so. If he is, a dangerous precedent will be set and soon saying anything that offends anyone could result in a contract being terminated.
Folau must accept, though, that his views on homosexuality will cost him sponsorship deals and that he cannot complain if sponsors no longer want to be associated with him. That is their right. I think he will, considering he has already said he would rather walk away from Australian rugby than withdraw his social media comments.
Hopefully, though, it doesn’t come to that. Rugby Australia should make it clear that while it strongly disagrees with Folau’s religious views on gays, it acknowledges his right to express them and will allow him to continue playing for the Waratahs and Wallabies.
WATCH: Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones on Folau saga
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images