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Should Israel Folau be silenced?

Footballer kicks religious freedom into play

Rugby legend Israel Folau was not offensive enough when he posted on Instagram that gay people will go to hell if they don’t repent, comments Anglican minister and media commentator Michael Jensen.

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“In some respects, he wasn’t offensive enough!” Jensen said today after Folau’s meeting today with Rugby Australia and the NSW Waratahs.

“It’s unfortunate that he singled out one part of the community. He shouldn’t have. Gay people are not singled out by the judgment of God. They are not the only people who need to repent; we all do. People of whatever orientation are in need of the grace and mercy of God.”

“People of whatever orientation are in need of the grace and mercy of God.” – Michael Jensen

The meeting came after major Wallabies sponsor Qantas announced it was considering pulling its sponsorship over the incident.

Folau has been under pressure since responding to a question on Instagram from a commentator: “@izzyfolau what was gods plan for gay people??” by saying: gay people “will go to hell unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

This created a perfect storm in which the offence to the LGBTIQ communities buffeted against Folau’s ability to express his Christian beliefs.

Folau’s social media feeds are full of Bible verses and Christian sayings. A typical post from Twitter reads:

After today’s initial meeting between Folau, Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle and the Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore, Castle told a press conference that Rugby Australia was “proud of the fact that [Folau] is a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in. We want athletes in our code who are prepared to do that.”

Hore told the press conference that, “in any change room there’s a wide range of views … that’s one of the beauties of rugby.”

However, Castle said the meeting today was about “using social media in a respectful and positive way.”

“Have we really come to the point where our moral guides are big corporations like Qantas?” – Michael Jensen

Michael Jensen told Eternity he thought one of the most fascinating aspects of this story was the role played by corporations.

“We have corporations acting as the moral policemen and threatening to take their money away. That’s an interesting moment. Have we really come to the point where our moral guides are big corporations like Qantas? Is Qantas really an ethical beacon of corporate behaviour? Are they really qualified to act that way?

“When you’re talking about a corporation, in the end it’s about money. So it’s not what’s right but what sells that counts. And that’s very dangerous territory to be in,” he said.

Perth blogger and pastor of Providence Church Stephen McAlpine agrees: “The Ruddock Review on Religious Freedom will be less revealing and have less impact than the cultural putsch by the CEOs of big organisations who have made it their aim to champion social change.”

Jensen warned against seeing criticism or disagreement as silencing. “People can disagree with what [Folau] says. And corporations and sponsors are perfectly right to say it doesn’t accord with their values. But disciplining him may be a little heavy handed.”

“We’ve lost the ability to speak civilly, in thick disagreement, about weighty matters.” – Nathan Campbell

Nathan Campbell, Brisbane blogger and a pastor at Creek Road Presbyterian, said he disagreed with the way Folau responded to the question and that he would have preferred him not to single out gay people. It was better for Christians to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

However, he said, “Folau spoke courageously, from his convictions about the eternal destiny of his neighbours.”

“We’ve lost the ability to speak civilly, in thick disagreement, about weighty matters,” he lamented.

“I’d much rather engage with his ideas, than silence him; which is a barbaric attempt to protect ‘uniformity’ by eradicating ‘difference’ and will end with us locked in ‘bubbles’ — unchallenged by ideas we don’t already agree with,” said Campbell.

“It gets to whether anyone will have freedom to be themselves in the workplace and speak things they believe.” – Michael Kellahan

Freedom For Faith leader Michael Kellahan said the issue went beyond one social media post.

“This is a religious freedom issue,” he told Eternity. 

“The simple thing to say is he could have expressed himself better – taken out of context, it sounds like he is singling out gays. But there’s a deeper issue here that is more serious than tone. It gets to whether anyone will have freedom to be themselves in the workplace and speak things they believe. Especially when it comes to talking about sin and judgment – that’s always going to be a hot issue.

“If corporations and employers control speech in this way, then it is a chipping away at freedom. Will diversity in the workplace allow for genuine differences in belief? What happens when there is a clash between corporate values and the beliefs of the individual? And under it all, as the Ruddock Panel writes its recommendations, there are real legal and political questions about freedom that might impact here.

“Rugby has a clear choice – stand for freedom of speech and people of principle like Israel Folau or bow to corporate PC bullies like Qantas”. – Karl Faase

“Should freedom be limited to worship or extend to the lived-out faith of a footballer? Will protection be narrow or broad? A narrow view could start costing people jobs – most of them won’t be as famous as Izzy. A broad view might give protection to speak but also ask what reasonable limits should be for good corporate policy?”

The issue has smoked out many Christian commentators to have their say, including Karl Faase from Olive Tree Media, who said on Facebook this week: “Rugby has a clear choice – stand for freedom of speech and people of principle like Israel Folau or bow to corporate PC bullies like Qantas”.

Lyle Shelton from the Australian Conservatives, and former managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), said, “Of course Israel Folau and all Christians should be free to speak about the biblical view of sin and its remedy through the love of Jesus. All Australians have the right to accept or reject this view. But, sadly, toxic identity politics is being used by some as a weapon to de-authorise a biblical worldview and frighten Christians into silence. Christians should be gracious but firm in resisting this trend.”

“Toxic identity politics is being used by some as a weapon to de-authorise a biblical worldview and frighten Christians into silence.” – Lyle Shelton

Meanwhile, the new ACL Managing Director Martyn Iles said he was pleased Folau was not “overtly disciplined for speaking about his faith” after the Rugby Australia meeting today, but he “should never have been hauled before Rugby bosses to explain his actions.”

“ACL is concerned that the so-called ‘ongoing dialogue’ with Rugby Australia about Folau’s appropriate use of social media could stifle his freedom to speak openly about his faith and marginalise his Christian identity into the future,” Iles said.

“The real test will be whether Folau continues to have the same freedom as other players to speak up for his beliefs, which are shared by millions of Australians.

“Instead of responding decisively to cheating, Qantas chose to persecute a Christian player for his religious identity.” – Martyn Iles

Iles said the handling of this incident has probably set a precedent in Rugby Australia and other sporting codes where a player’s ability to articulate mainstream Christian views is “chilled.”

This is discrimination against people of faith in sport,” he said.

“It is especially disappointing that Qantas hinted it could withdraw its support for the Wallabies, after reassuring Cricket Australia it is “nowhere near” withdrawing support for a team that deliberately cheated. Instead of responding decisively to cheating, Qantas chose to persecute a Christian player for his religious identity.”

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