Australian sports star sacked for anti-gay comments, prompting debate about religious freedoms

Rugby star Israel Folau had posted a meme that said "hell awaits" homosexuals.
Rugby star Israel Folau had posted a meme that said "hell awaits" homosexuals.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - 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 were offensive and violated the values and inclusiveness that the sport has been trying to promote. Eventually, the organisation decided to terminate his four-year A$4 million contract.

The sacking of Mr Folau has sparked a fierce national debate about religious freedoms. It has raised questions about whether people should be allowed to act on their faith even if it proves offensive to other members of the community.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, himself a devout Christian, has said employers should not punish people for their 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 practice and 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 to us," wrote Mr Brian Houston, a pastor, in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Likewise, the gay community was divided over the treatment of Mr Folau. Some said he was using his public position to stoke anti-gay sentiment, others said he should not be pressured 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 that Rugby Australia should be allowed to sack him because he posted his messages openly to a large public following which stems from his sporting talents. He has 367,000 followers on Instagram and more than 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... But it's these types of comments and these types of off-the-cuff remarks when you have young people and vulnerable people who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it."

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 their religious beliefs or activities.

More than 30 per cent of Australians have no religion, up from 13 per cent in 1991. In contrast, about 52 per cent of Australians 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 going further, using the Folau case to argue for a freedom to express religious views.

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

"I do not want religion to be an issue that divides Australians; it is deeply personal for people," 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.