Why we can't stop talking about Israel Folau

Martyr, muggins or magnificent, he’s left a mark

Some Christians love what Israel Folau had to say on Instagram about a list of sinners from liars to fornicators to homosexuals. Namely that they are headed for hell. Others were not fans, or wished he had said it better. Even much better. Some just admired his guts. Others want us to rally behind him as a living “martyr”.

Which ever group you might be in, Folau has stirred up the issue of religious freedom just in time for the election.

Is mentioning hell, and the possible inhabitants thereof, something that should never be mentioned in polite Australian company? And depending on your labor contract something you should be sacked for?

If nothing else Folau’s Instagram message and Rugby Australia’s announcement that they intend to sack him for it has had a chilling effect on Christian conversation across the great South land.

The emergence of employment contracts as a means to restrict speech opens up some tough questions for religious freedom campaigners.

The boundaries are not clear. Would a politer version of the Folau comment pass muster? What about any gospel presentation that mentions hell? Or something that implies that something is a sin?

Up till now schools have been the focus of the religious freedom debate which has given this federal election campaign a rather different tinge to any other.

The religious freedom debate was spun off the marriage plebiscite by the Turnbull government, which promised to look after some complaints raised by religious lobbyists “later”.

In turn the Morrison regime, which might have seemed to be more attentive to Christian concerns kicked the issue down the road referring issues of school students and staff to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) and the question of a Religious Freedom Act to the next parliament. (Associate Professor Neil Foster has just found out the ALRC will be consulting widely and expects to release a Discussion Paper on 2 Sep 2019 with submissions in response due on 15 Oct 2019.)

Given that there could be a change of government, Christians concerned with religious freedom have wished the Coalition spent less energy on leadership change and more on this issue.

The emergence of employment contracts as a means to restrict speech – the Nine/Fairfax group has just announced social media restrictions on their journalists – opens up some tough questions for religious freedom campaigners.

Take the case of the country Queensland teacher in a Christian school. When she was found to be pregnant, unmarried and despite the school’s urging not about to marry the father of her child, she was sacked because she had signed an employment contract with a code of conduct.

In the age of the internet we are rapidly discovering an instrument of surveillance.

The boundaries once again are far from clear. Many Australians would support the right of a religion to select its leaders and hold them to account. The Catholic Church can insist on male priests, or a Mosque a devoted Imam. But should a school insist every teacher in a religious school be a Christian, even the gardener? And if they can be held to a code of conduct, enforced by an employment contract – essentially to not contradict the values of their employer – why can’t Rugby Australia clamp down on, even sack Israel Folau?

In the age of the internet we are rapidly discovering an instrument of surveillance. This article will live on with my name. If I could pithily tweet or “insta” it, the same would happen, just like people have been finding Israel Folau’s comments using a search engine. A few short years ago the same words might have been said in a club room, or on a telephone call. They likely would have vanished. No longer.

Thinking positively about this – our witness online will last. Now there’s a challenge.

In the meantime Folau is happy to stand by his words. But the chilling effect of talking, even much more guardedly about Christianity, will last as well. No doubt many of us fail to be as winsome in displaying our faith as we ought. But it will be sad, and bad, if we give up trying.