Australian superstar Israel Folau appears before a Rugby Union panel tomorrow to appeal his sacking over an Instagram post which the administrators of Rugby Australia claim is homophobic.
In the post, Folau intimated that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” would go to hell unless they repented. Rugby Australia says that Folau has been warned before that remarks like that breach its inclusion policy.
This is a major test of free speech in the Australian workplace. Folau insists that he has a right to express his religious beliefs. Raelene Castle, CEO of Rugby Australia, insists that he is not and cannot be a team player. If Folau loses this case, all Australians working in gay-friendly companies lose, too. If someone with his media profile and popularity cannot speak out, who can?
Here are a few issues for the code of conduct hearing.
Read your inclusion policy, Raelene. “There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game,” it says. But it also clearly states: “Rugby AU’s policy on inclusion is simple: … players, officials, volunteers, supporters and administrators have the right and freedom to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion and without fear of exclusion.” Isn’t Rugby Australia excluding one of its best players over his religious beliefs? Why focus only on sexual orientation?
Not a team player? Ask the team. The Australian reported this week that “a procession of senior Wallabies” – only three, actually — feel that they can no longer play with Folau. But no one in Rugby Australia seems to have asked the Wallabies what they think of Folau. There’s probably a good reason: many of them would support him.
“Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs,” said Taniela Tupou on Facebook. “I will never apologise for my faith and what I believe in, religion (has) got nothing to do with rugby anyway.”
In fact, this is looking more and more like racial discrimination on the part of Rugby Australia. Christian beliefs are deeply rooted in the Pacific and about a third of last year’s Wallabies had a Polynesian background. “I guarantee, if they (RA) take this hard stance against Izzy, a lot of the islander boys out there playing, they will be in the same boat and they will be happy to walk away from the game purely because of that reason in support of Izzy,” said former Wallaby Mark Gerrard. Check out the Instagram post of Samu Kerevi, another Wallaby.
Censure does not imply offence. Israel’s remarks were clearly not intended to be personally offensive. Every rule of law implies that some actions are to be condemned. In Australia these range from treason and passing bad cheques to domestic violence and littering. If the existence of a law forbidding an action implies personal offence, society would be unworkable.
Consider a slogan supported by State government campaigns against drink-driving: “If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot”. One of these advertisements threatens drunks with the death of a girlfriend, the quadriplegia of a mate, and a jail cell with a violent offender. In other words, the moral action of drink-driving is reprehensible. But this advertisement has never been interpreted as personally offensive to anyone who consumes alcohol.
Israel is merely repeating a two-thousand-year Christian (and Jewish) tradition that certain actions are morally wrong. People who engage in homosexual activity are just one class amongst others, including drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. Read more attentively, the Instagram post also condemns anger, bullying, pornography and sexual harassment. It is absurd to think that Israel intends to be personally offensive to every person who lies on his tax return or wolf-whistles. He is simply observing that moral actions, of all kinds, have consequences.
Homosexuals are not singled out. Why are his critics focusing only on the hurt feelings of homosexuals? Israel’s Instagram post also singles out “liars”. In the lead-up to Australia’s May 18 Federal election, the number of lies told will be enough to send half of Parliament to Hell. Are any of them worried about that? Probably not. How about atheists, witches and drunks? Do any of them lose sleep over Israel Folau’s predictions. Not at all.
Words which offend everyone are words which offend no one. For better or worse, the categories of “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” probably include about 90 percent of the world’s adults. If Israel were to post “we are all responsible for global warming”, it would be ridiculous for anyone to be personally offended.
Is Hell really offensive in 2019? As for the promise of hell, it baffles me why the prediction of an afterlife in hell is regarded personally offensive. In contemporary Australia, many people feel that their understanding of hell would be preferable to the alternative post-mortem destination, heaven, a boring resort where goody-goody two-shoes play harps on clouds while their friends are partying below. According to a Nielson Poll, only 38 percent of Australians believe in Hell. My observation is that very few of these believe that anyone resides there.
So, even if Israel’s observation is interpreted as a threat, it is an idle threat if you do not believe in Hell, on a par with telling a child “the tooth fairy will not visit you unless you eat your Brussel sprouts”.
Hell is conditional, not inevitable. Israel’s observation is conditional. He states very clearly that Hell awaits sinners “unless you repent”. He does not exclude himself from this prospect. Bear in mind that the traditional Christian teaching is that we are all sinners and that anyone who fails to repent of his or her sins before death will go to hell.
Homosexuals are not a special case in the Christian salvation stakes. What is God’s plan for Pope Francis? Hell, unless he repents of his sins. What is God’s plan for Franklin Graham? Hell, unless he repents of his sins. What is God’s plan for the Archbishop of Canterbury? Hell, unless he repents of his sins.
Hell – as Israel has acknowledged – awaits him personally, if he lies or gets drunk, and fails to repent. He clearly stated last year, “There are many sins outlined in that passage from 1 Corinthians and I have been guilty of committing some of them myself.”
Yes, Rugby AU’s policy on inclusion is simple. Believe whatever you like. But don't tell anyone about it.
Of course, that's not what Israel Folau's critics do. Remember the threat made by Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, the chief sponsor of the Wallabies (Australia's international rugby side)? During Australia's same-sex marriage campaign, he told a gay newspaper: “We have 580 companies involved … If you’re unhappy with a company that’s involved with the campaign you won’t be able to bank and you won’t be able to fly anywhere.”
And you won't be able to play rugby either. If Israel loses, the millions of Australians who share his Christian beliefs will be thinking: will I be next on the chopping block?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.