Why Israel Folau verdict affects all of us

“Should there be freedom for him to do what he’s done, or not?”

Israel Folau’s “high-level breach” of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct could impact your job, warn several experts in religion and law.

According to Michael Kellahan, executive director of Christian legal think-tank Freedom For Faith, the fall-out from Folau’s penalty announced yesterday raises issues close to homes right across Australia.

“It’s not just about Israel Folau; it’s about how we do life together.” – Michael Kellahan

“I think the particular concern that we would have would be that his ability to hold certain beliefs is being constrained because people object to those beliefs,” Kellahan told Eternity about his take on Rugby Australia’s actions against Folau. “They don’t want those kinds of beliefs spoken because they don’t match up with their beliefs.”

While Folau’s case might appear to be about a high-profile sports star and his personal views, Kellahan says the bigger issue is confusion about employee and employer relations. Uncertainty around expressing religious beliefs extends beyond international playing fields and into any Australian workplace, from the local bakery to government departments.

“Everyone’s looking at this and saying ‘Is this OK or not?’ There’s one question about whether it’s legal; but should this kind of thing happen?” asks Kellahan.

“Should there be freedom for him to do what he’s done, or not?

“But it’s not just about him; it’s about how we do life together. All kinds of people bring all kinds of beliefs into life and workplaces and social media.”

Sanctions against the Wallabies star by Rugby Australia are yet to be announced and Folau has until Friday to appeal. This week’s hearing was due to Folau challenging the termination of  his four-year, $4 million contract after Rugby Australia deemed one of his Instagram posts in breach of his employment contract (having been reprimanded for previous posts linked with Bible verses and homosexuality).

The April 10 Instagram post was an image with text that listed “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” as going to hell, and called them to repent. It ended with “Only Jesus saves.” To this, Folau added his own comment: “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”

Freedom for Faith advocates for religious freedom to be encouraged and protected in Australia (for all religions/belief systems). During the past few years, the same-sex marriage debate and Ruddock Religious Freedom Review have caused issues of religious freedom – and other related matters of conscience and speech – to hit the headlines. Kellahan sees the Folau/Rugby Australia case as a “crystallisation” of many of these heightened issues.

Neil Foster agrees. An associate professor in law at an Australian university, Foster runs the Law and Religion Australia blog and is concerned about the precedent being set. “It wouldn’t surprise me if people saw this as an important test case,” says Foster, in relation to what people can say publicly about the Bible and its content.

“The case is of some concern because it certainly seems to be sending a message that you can’t explicitly say this in public.”

“There’s a cultural shift taking place in workplaces where corporations are wanting to own more of the soul of their employees.” – Michael Kellahan

The Commonwealth Fair Work Act offers protection against discrimination based on religious beliefs. However, in New South Wales, there is no state law prohibiting an employee being fired for their religious beliefs. As Kellahan outlines, South Australia is similar to NSW, while all other states and territories do offer protections. Foster tells Eternity that the Ruddock Review recommended the NSW laws be overhauled to offer better protections.

“I think a lot of the problems we are in at the moment [in relation to] Folau is because there is uncertainty,” says Kellahan about workplace laws across Australia. “That uncertainty arises, in large part, because of lack of leadership to bring about clarity in the law. Not just for Folau or Rugby Australia, but for all employers and employees to understand that this is what it means to have the right to have a belief in Australia and live it out.”

At a federal level,  both major political parties show no signs of acting swiftly upon recommendations by the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review. Kellahan is confident that Folau’s case will not become an election issue but believes “politicians in Canberra are taking very close watch of what is happening with Folau.” He predicts government and legal systems in Australia will eventually catch up to where Kellahan observes Australian corporate culture is headed.

“There’s a cultural shift taking place in workplaces where corporations are wanting to own more of the soul of their employees.” Kellahan reports that Freedom for Faith receives many calls each week from employees asking about their rights in relation to employers setting moral expectations in the workplace. Whether it is restricting social media comments or asking employees to wear a certain colour on a certain day to support a cause, Kellahan says it is a fine balancing act between trusting corporations to act well and how much civil freedom does an employee have in the workplace.

“One of the issues for corporations is thinking through what it means to have a diverse workplace and people coming along with different beliefs. How do you deal with that diversity? Is it that everyone now must have this corporate set of beliefs and be silent about things that are in conflict with it … or will the corporation be able to set up patterns where that diversity is recognised and embraced?”

“It’s an interpretation of his obligations that becomes the issue.” – Neil Foster

Kellahan and Foster note that any employee should be aware (and wary) of whatever employment contract they have entered into. Without being alarmist, Foster endorses Kellahan’s observations that uncertainty around the expectations in the workplace will result in more cases like Israel Folau/Rugby Australia occurring.

“I think Folau owed an obligation to do his best to comply with the conditions he had agreed to work under. But he, from other things I have seen, didn’t think he was engaged in something that was hateful or discriminatory. He wanted to issue a warning based on the Bible. As far as I’m aware, we haven’t quite got to the point where Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct says you can’t post Bible verses.”

“It’s an interpretation of his obligations that becomes the issue.”

Kellahan quotes pastor and social commentator Murray Campbell, who blogged that ‘Israel Folau [has been] charged with social blasphemy.’

“I think that is actually saying it’s not about your beliefs; it’s that you don’t fit in with ours. You are an unbeliever in the progressive vision we have for rugby.”

In light of Folau’s case and recommending some caution around what employees say or do, Kellahan and Foster are not calling on Christians to leave their faith at home.

“I think Christians need to be Christians,” Kellahan says simply. “The church needs to be the church. That will always be public. There’s no Christianity which isn’t public because we are committed to loving God, loving our neighbour and speaking about Jesus.

“Let’s be wise and find good ways to do it better, of course. But it would be foolish to think we should avoid this by going radio silent and stepping back. That’s actually just unfaithfulness.”

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