THE sacking of Wallaby star Israel Folau has prompted soul-searching questions of religious freedom and expression – far beyond the confines of rugby, “the game they play in heaven”.
The thirty-year-old’s $4 million contract was terminated on May 17 after an independent panel found he committed a high-level breach of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct for posting religiously-inspired, anti-gay comments on social media.
The axed fullback, who is also a Pentecostal pastor, last month posted an Instagram warning to “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters, hell awaits you, repent, only Jesus saves”.
“Jesus Christ loves you and has given you time to turn away from your sin and come to him,” he wrote.
Announcing Mr Folau’s termination, Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle stressed Folau’s high-level contract breach was “a painful situation for the game”, and would change the landscape for sport across Australia and perhaps internationally.
“Mr Folau knew when he pressed that button there were the implications that post was going to have,” Ms Castle said.
Mr Folau responded with a politely-worded statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the decision and that he was considering his options.
He has decided not to to appeal the decision.
“It has been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” Mr Folau, who was born in Sydney to Tongan parents, said.
“As Australians, we are born with certain rights, including the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of expression.
“The Christian faith has always been a part of my life and I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God’s word.
“Upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club and country.”
Mr Folau later posted an image on Instagram – his first since the now infamous post which got him banned in April – captioned with a Bible quote from Matthew 6:33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you”.
Mr Folau’s social media comments have fuelled lively debate about religious expression in Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, also a Pentecostal, offered words of support for Folau in the lead-up to his Coalition election victory last Saturday (May18).
“If you are not free to believe, what are you free to do in this country?” Mr Morrison said, during a third and final election debate hosted at the National Press Club in Canberra on May 8.
“I admire people of religious conviction, I admire people who draw strength from their faith, I am one of those people.”
Some of Mr Folau’s former teammates at the Wallabies and the NSW Waratahs have publicly criticised his comments, but many are Pacific Islanders who share his religious beliefs.
Former Wallaby teammates prop Sekope Kepu and Waratahs hooker Tolu Latu immediately added comments in support of Folau’s latest social media post.
Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, now an outspoken radio host, has also defended Folau’s right to free speech.
“They’ve destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the Bible, for God’s sake,’’ Mr Jones told his 2GB radio audience.
“Israel Folau is from a devoutly religious Polynesian family. He has not sought to impose his views on anybody.
“He has merely repeated … what his religion has held for thousands of years.
“Whether you choose to believe it is up to you.
“And if you don’t, then probably you don’t believe in hell either.”
Mr Jones singled out Rugby Australia’s major sponsor Qantas, and in particular the airline’s chief Alan Joyce, who is homosexual, as the reason behind Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau.
Mr Joyce had told the Australian Financial Review “we don’t sponsor something to get involved in controversy”.
“That’s not part of the deal,” he said.
“We expect our partners to take the appropriate action.
“It’s not an issue for Qantas, it’s an issue for every potential sponsor for Rugby Australia, ever.”
Mr Jones would not relent in his criticism of Rugby Australia and apparent sponsorship pressure.
“There is only one issue here and that is they are getting money from a sponsor and apparently the sponsor has intervened and said he doesn’t like it,” he said.
“If that’s the case you find another sponsor.’’
Mr Folau is expected to escalate the situation and launch a legal case against his former employer.
It would be a unique case in Australian sport, and in workplace relations, where contract law is pitted against freedom of religion.
The case could hinge on whether a work contract overrides religious freedom that might be enshrined elsewhere in law.
“Under the Fair Work Act it is actually unlawful to terminate someone on the basis of their religious belief,” employment lawyer Mark Fowler told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr Folau could look to ethno-religious protection under New South Wales law – the jurisdiction in which he made the controversial social media posts.
“Indeed some Pacific Island footballers have said ‘we all hold this view’,” Mr Fowler said.
“It falls to the facts … and the historical and cultural linkage between the Pacific Islanders and Christianity.”
In Tonga, where Mr Folau is revered as a sporting hero, Reverend Kava Fisiihoi, a prominent rugby administrator summed up the dilemma for many devout Islanders who hold similar biblical views: “I stand with Folau”.
“It is very difficult to separate your belief in public life,” he said.