Israel Folau’s biggest opponents aren’t on the rugby field

Rugby player Israel Folau has earned a lot of bad press for his recent comment about gay people going to hell. While the comment could have been better phrased, the extreme backlash has been a definite spectacle.

Folau, a committed Christian, has not hidden his beliefs about marriage. Last week he uploaded a graphic titled “God’s plan” to Instagram. A person commented asking what that was for gay people, and Folau responded that it was hell, unless they repented of their sins.

Was Folau’s engagement with an unknown commenter wise? People can disagree on that. Was it an overly simplistic explanation of his beliefs? Probably. But is anyone naïve enough to think that, however he had said it, the backlash would not have occurred? His tweet last year about loving and respecting all people but believing marriage to be between a man and a woman faced similar outrage, despite its very gentle and thoughtful phrasing. 

The reactions to his comment have treated him as if he were an extremist. For example, Tuariki Delamere, the former immigration minister of New Zealand, said that he should not be admitted to the country, saying he is “a threat to the public interest and a threat to the public order.”

Folau has faced a disciplinary meeting with Raelene Castle, the chief executive of Rugby Australia, and Andrew Hore, the chief executive of New South Wales Rugby who, for now, will not take any action against him. A media conference held after the meeting showed that the tensions are still there, and gave little light on what will happen if Folau continues to express his views.

The pro-LGBT Qantas has reportedly threatened to withdraw their sponsorship from Rugby Australia if Folau makes another comment opposing homosexuality. This could result in Folau either having to remain silent about his beliefs, or risk losing his position with the team.

If Folau can get in trouble for such a remark, there is no telling what will be done to limit others’ freedom of speech. Not everyone has Folau’s high profile and, as we saw throughout the marriage campaign, ordinary Australians are much more susceptible to pressure from their employers.  Free speech is at risk in Australia. Will the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom offer protections for religious freedom and free speech? Stay tuned until they report next month. It is our hope that individuals will not be so aggressively pressured into silence.

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