Further thoughts on the Folau saga

A reader, bmadtiger, recently responded to an earlier post I made about Rights and Responsibilities which was addressing the Israel Folau saga that has been playing out in the Australian media for months.

A Short Background

Israel Folau, professional rugby union player instagrammed a biblical quote warning about the consequences of sin according to the Christian faith. Person(s) unknown complained. His employer, Rugby Australia, tore up his multi-million dollar contract and banned him from playing for life. Media piled-on. Controversially, Folau then raised $2m crowd-sourced to contribute to his defence.

I began writing a response to bmadtiger… only for it to lengthen to the point where I thought I’d make my response into a post. Then I sat on the post for a time and let it percolate…

bmadtiger’s comment had directed my attention to an article by Ray Barnett, A Two Edged Sword: What Might Justice Look Like. While willing to support Folau as an individual, Barnett’s concern is that a win for Folau might inadvertently strip Christian organisation’s of their ability to sack on religious grounds of staff. (i.e. a school teacher with beliefs or acts not aligned with the Christian values).

It could become a double-edged sword, and I also see bigger dangers which I’ll address soon. First though, why I hope it does not.

The Legal Question

(I am not a lawyer. This is what I hope would be the law: which ought to be common-sense enacted for the greater good of the community).

Folau was essentially sacked for breaching his contract; presumably for bringing Rugby Australia into disrepute. Folau’s primary job is to chase a football and score points. As a part of that job, he is a representative of the sport, to a degree.

The question is, does the religious opinion of an individual, expressed off-field, bring an entire sporting organisation into disrepute? Or is it just a guy who has an opinion which is counter to the majority? I think making the assertion that he has brought the entire sport into disrepute is a hard-sell.

With Rugby players, we mostly want fit people who are good at chasing footballs and colliding with the opposition when required. We don’t really care what their IQ is, and normally if they’re a drug addict or a wife-beater we’ll help rehabilitate them. Folau, aside from his religious beliefs, is a great player and a model citizen, on and off the field.

Contrast that with the hypothetical Christian organisation raised by Barnett. It is a different situation entirely. A Christian organisation, especially a church or school, is understood to be fundamentally Christian as a primary aspect of it’s identity. Taking the “Christian” out of it would be like trying to strip one side of the double helix; a fundamental change and breaking it from what it is supposed to be. Most parents send their children to a school because they want them to have a Christian influence. (At the very least they accept that whilst there they will have a Christian influence).

Now enter the hypothetical ‘wayward’ staff member, who is found to be living a non-Christian lifestyle, or is an atheist in belief. A Christian organisation that became known as non-Christian (or sub-Christian) would quickly suffer reputational damage and lose a significant part of it’s ‘unique selling-point’. The key base of their demographic would vote with their feet.

As an example: A man who is drunk on weekdays but stone-cold sober on weekends, is unfit to counsel alcohol addiction on a Saturday. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. His lifestyle is inconsistent with his advice, and he lacks credibility. The same would be true in a Christian school environment. If the school is purporting to teach pupils how to live a Christian lifestyle, they must be able to demonstrate consistency and integrity to the message. The belief system is critical to what is being offered.

On Reputational Damage

It’s my belief that if ‘reputational damage’ is a key aspect of a contract, then most of Rugby Australia corporate stooges should lose their jobs. Their (mis)handling of this case has done more damage to the sport than Folau’s comments ever did.

Rugby Australia, when confronted with this public relations issue, reached for the nuclear option. They didn’t negotiate, they didn’t fine or suspend him. They banned him for life. In a news.com.au poll, 53% of respondents agreed he should be sacked. That’s 47% who disagreed (133,116 respondents). That’s the nuclear option.

Rugby Australia should have come out and said they completely disagreed with Folau’s opinion, but that he had a right to it. If they wanted to, they could also have negotiated in his contract whatever precautions they wanted. Both parties could then decide if they were willing to sign on the dotted line. I’ve never seen the ball fumbled more as by the Rugby Australia board.

The media too, with almost relentless attacks on everything-Folau has done itself reputational damage. It’s clear bias and desire to execute-by-media has been on full display. Which is tone-deaf of them, considering that in the same survey 72% of 134,558 people thought Australia had become too politically correct. But perhaps they perceive that as 28% who are enlightened and they need to redouble their educational efforts? (/sarc).

A Bigger Threat

In his article Barnett raised the concern of the end of religious exemptions from discrimination claims. He wrote, “If exonerated and reinstated, Israel Folau will become the precedent…”

A precedent will be set, regardless of the outcome. If Folau loses does that mean an employer can claim any politically-incorrect statements are a sackable offence? Will sharing ones faith be considered anathema? Will contributing to the conversation in the ‘public square’ be off-limits even in your own time, at the risk of unemployment?

There are already such cases in Australia where individual activists have weaponised the judicial system to silence their ideological foes. I don’t want more of it.

It is my hope that Folau will honour those Australians who have stood with him, by pushing this until there is a sound-and-beneficial precedent set. It will be the greatest try of his life, and of immeasurable value for all.

Will there be Justice?

As I’ve said, this has played out severely in the media, and touches on some pretty powerful nerves of offence and freedom.

As Barnett wrote,

[Folau] was treated unjustly as the law currently stands. Circumstances do seem to have been manipulated against him. He did appear to run foul of the politically-correct brigade and social warrior commerce with which society has now been saddled.

If a Judge is to make a decision favouring Folau, the Justice must be made of titanium. The media and activists will be applying relentless pressure, with the undertones of carrot and stick. In the Judge’s heart and mind is where the battle will be won or lost.

I hope that the decision will be made with common sense. Common sense seems in short supply these days; one can never know if it’ll be there when it’s needed. We’d be foolish not to be appealing to God that his Justice would be delivered, albeit through a human justice system in this case.

Final Thoughts

Ray Barnett put it well, so I’ll let him finish this post:

In many of the serious documents coming from the first few centuries of our faith, when our brothers and sisters faced Roman brutality far greater than we can possibly imagine, they did not—nor could they—argue at law for their rights at law. Their defence was their godly lives and the tangible displays of community that saw them cover the loss and deprivation of any and all members who suffered the attacks of the authorities. Absorbing them into the community and family that transcended all human associations, providing for lost income or resources.

This did two things. It provided for needs in a society in which there was no government assistance. More significantly, it gave a visible demonstration of a better Kingdom. It showed that Christ was able to create one new community, one new people, out of men and women from many different racial and social backgrounds