The Israel Folau crowdfunding saga is not about freedom of religion

Israel Folau
Photo: Israel Folau chose to prioritise his conscience over his career. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Dr Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre writes about Israel Folau and the fallout from his sacking and the crowdfunding saga. Dr Simon Longstaff says, inter-alia, Religious freedom comes in four basic forms: freedom of belief, freedom of worship, freedom to act in good conscience (which includes freedom from coercion in matters of religion) and finally freedom to proselytise (which includes the right to educate one’s children in the faith). Folau’s case involves the third and fourth of these freedoms.

What Folau believes and how he worships have not been challenged. Rather, he has been sanctioned for what he has done and said — not as a believer, but in his role as an elite rugby player representing Australia. However, can the two roles of “believer” and “contracted player” be so easily separated? That is the question at the heart of this issue.


Israel Folau’s now infamous post in which he called on a range of “sinners” to repent, turn to Jesus Christ and thus be saved from an eternity in Hell has had more consequences than I suspect he anticipated.

It has led to his loss of employment. It has elevated his status to that of a champion for conservative Christian beliefs.

Finally, it has prompted widespread debate about the intersection between religious belief and the world of work.

It is this last issue that deserves further discussion.

Religious freedom comes in four basic forms: freedom of belief, freedom of worship, freedom to act in good conscience (which includes freedom from coercion in matters of religion) and finally freedom to proselytise (which includes the right to educate one’s children in the faith). Folau’s case involves the third and fourth of these freedoms.

What Folau believes and how he worships have not been challenged. Rather, he has been sanctioned for what he has done and said — not as a believer, but in his role as an elite rugby player representing Australia. However, can the two roles of “believer” and “contracted player” be so easily separated? That is the question at the heart of this issue.

What are Folau’s rights?

As a committed Christian, Folau obviously feels compelled to act on his beliefs — in this case by posting tweets directed at those who risk damnation. Within his world view, he is simply following the scriptural injunction to: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark16:15)

 

An instagram post shows text warning groups of people that hell awaits them with comments running alongside
Photo: One of Folau’s controversial Instagram posts. He would later target the ability for trans children to change gender. (Supplied: @izzyfolau)

So, we might ask if it is right and proper that a person of such sincere religious beliefs has lost his job and been denied at least one platform for fundraising to defend his interests before the courts.

As a general rule, there is only one group of employers — faith groups — who claim a right to dismiss people from employment because of their religious beliefs. For example, a number of religious organisations have argued that their schools should be allowed to deny employment to otherwise competent people who do not practise their religion. It follows from this that employees who renounce the faith of the school would be open to dismissal.

No other employer may discriminate against a person based on their religious beliefs. So, given that rugby is not a religion (despite what some claim), how did Folau come to lose his lucrative employment — a risk that is now faced by his wife, Maria Folau, one of Australasia’s pre-eminent netball athletes and a Christian who supports her husband’s views?

Brands have a right to protect their interests

In order to broaden the debate, let’s consider the case of a Christian who believes that the Pope is the Antichrist and that Roman Catholics are all destined for Hell. Such views are not “hypothetical”. They were openly held by the Northern Ireland religious and political leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley.

In 1958, he condemned Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother for “committing spiritual fornication and adultery with the Antichrist” after they met with Pope John XXIII. Thirty years later, Paisley denounced Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist — to his face — while the latter addressed the European Union Parliament.

Now suppose an employee is of a mind similar to Paisley — so publishes a tweet attacking the head of the Catholic Church and all of its adherents in equivalent terms. Suppose the employee does so on the basis of what he considers to be a well-founded and sincere religious belief. However, in this case, it’s not just a vulnerable minority group who’s affected — but more than a billion Roman Catholics and their immensely wealthy and powerful church.

Let’s suppose that the “Paisleyite” employee is a prominent brand ambassador working for a major bank. After the tweet, all hell breaks loose. Upset employees threaten to resign, customers threaten to close their accounts, investors begin to dump the stock, etc.

Would an employer be justified in calling such a person to account? Or should the bank respect the expression of sincere, religious belief and defend the right of the brand ambassador to express such views — no matter what damage is done?

It seems reasonable that employers be free to take steps to protect themselves from the kind of strategic risk caused by well-intentioned, loose cannons like the hypothetical brand ambassador sketched above.

This should allow employers to put in place measures designed to protect their interests — and then ask their employees to act accordingly.

 

Free speech street art
Photo: Folau’s sacking has become a touch-stone in the debate around religious freedom and freedom of speech. (Flickr: Newtown Grafitti)

Employees have a right to choose too

There is an important point to be noted here. The employer has a right to define how its interests are to be protected. However, it falls to the employee to accept (or not) the relevant conditions of employment.

Any person who truly feels unable to accept those conditions should either not accept an offer of employment or if already part of the organisation, then they should consider resigning in order to find a place of employment better aligned with their moral compass.

This brings us back to the ethical core of the problem raised by the Folau case. Is it ever right for an employer to demand that an employee leave their conscience at the door? I think that the answer is no.

However, if the conscience of an employee should be respected, then so should that of the employer. No individual or organisation is required to be complicit in conduct that it sincerely believes to be wrong.

This is the ground on which Rugby Australia and GoFundMe have both stood. They have decided not to enable the propagation of views that they hold to be ethically objectionable. Rugby Australia’s employment of Folau as one of Australia’s elite sportsmen afforded him (and his views about sin) a prominence that others do not enjoy. They have denied him access to the platform they had provided to him.

Folau was never just a player. He has always been, in part, a brand ambassador. GoFundMe denied Folau its platform after he allegedly violated its terms of service.

A screengrab of Israel Folau's GoFundMe campaign
Photo: Folau received thousands of donations. (ABC)

Folau chose religion

What both sides of this debate need to consider are the requirements for even-handedness and proportionality. Those who act in the name of conscience — employees and employers — need to be sincere. They need to protect their position with the minimal restrictions necessary. They need to be even-handed — treating like issues and persons in a like manner. And they need to accept the reasonable consequences of their actions.

Folau must have known that labelling homosexuals (among others) as sinners destined for Hell would be incendiary — and risk damaging Rugby Australia.

After all, this was not the first time he had been vocal in his views. In the end, his choice was between what he understood to be his duty to his employer and what he understood to be his duty to his God. Folau chose to put his religion first.

Conscience is not a convenient friend. It often comes with consequences; some good, some ill.

Neither Rugby Australia nor GoFundMe has silenced Folau. He is still acting and speaking in accordance with his religious beliefs. He is still able to raise funds for his defence — as demonstrated by the swift offer of support provided by the Australian Christian Lobby. Folau still has a public platform — which he continues to utilise, as is his right.

Kicked out of the temple, Israel Folau remains free to preach in the marketplace.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

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