Aussie rugby star's sacking sparks fierce debate

Mr Israel Folau's sacking - over a series of anti-gay posts - has split the community, including Christians.
Mr Israel Folau's sacking - over a series of anti-gay posts - has split the community, including Christians.

Most people in Australia would agree that rugby star Israel Folau is one of the nation's most talented sportspeople, but that is where the consensus about him ends.

Despite being one of Australia's and the world's best players, Mr Folau was sacked by his employer, Rugby Australia, after posting an anti-gay message on Instagram.

Mr Folau, 30, a fundamentalist Christian, posted a meme that said "hell awaits" homosexuals. This followed a series of other posts airing anti-homosexual views which he says are expressions of his faith.

Rugby Australia says it had repeatedly warned him that the messages violated the inclusiveness the sport has been trying to promote. Eventually, it terminated his four-year A$4 million (S$3.78 million) contract.

The sacking has sparked a fierce debate about religious freedoms, raising questions about whether people should be allowed to act on their faith even if it proves offensive to others in the community.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, himself a devout Christian, has said employers should not punish people for religious beliefs.

"I think it's important, ultimately, that employers have reasonable expectations of their employees, and that they don't impinge on their areas of... private belief or private activity," he told ABC News.

 
 
 

Mr Folau's sacking has split the community, including Christians.

Some Christian leaders have staunchly defended him, but others have insisted he does not speak for all Christians and should have been less quick to judge.

"As Christians we are first called to love God and love other people, including those who believe differently," wrote pastor Brian Houston in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The gay community is also divided. Some said Mr Folau was using his position to stoke anti-gay sentiment; others said he should not be forced to conceal his views.

Mr Folau has taken legal action against Rugby Australia, saying his words "came from a place of love".

But he drew further criticism after giving a sermon at a church last month in which he again attacked homosexuality.

Mr Folau's critics say Rugby Australia should be allowed to sack him because he posted his messages openly to a large following, owing to his sporting talents. He has 367,000 followers on Instagram and about 150,000 on Facebook.

Mr Ian Roberts, a former rugby league player who was the first in Australia to come out as gay, said earlier this year that Mr Folau was a role model and his comments could be very hurtful for young and vulnerable gay people.

"These types of remarks can and do push people over the edge," he told Channel Nine. "There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves."

The ruling Liberal-National Coalition plans to introduce a religious discrimination Act later this year which would make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of religious belief or activity.

More than 30 per cent of Australians have no religion, up from 13 per cent in 1991. In contrast, about 52 per cent are Christian compared with 74 per cent in 1991.

The Government has signalled that its religious discrimination law would protect a person such as Mr Folau because employers could be barred from making rules that affect people's faith.

But some conservative MPs in the Coalition have suggested using the Folau case to argue for a freedom to express religious views.

Mr Morrison, a social conservative, is keen to ensure that the issue does not divide the country or his own Liberal party, which is deeply split between moderate and conservative MPs.

He told his MPs earlier this month: "I want to work through it in a way that enhances unity, not for political purposes."

Meanwhile, Mr Folau's legal action continues. His rugby career appears to be over but he has said that it would be "God's will" if he never plays the sport again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie rugby star's sacking sparks fierce debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe