The Israel Folau “situation” – How far does freedom of religion go?

There has been a lot of discussion in Australia in recent weeks and months about former rugby and AFL “star” Israel Folau.

He was terminated from his contract with Rugby Australia following his publication of a meme that was deemed to be a breach of his contract.

Folau has since launched legal proceedings, claiming unfair dismissal on the basis of religion. He has also launched a crowd funding page to pay for his legal fees, despite having a substantial property portfolio, and the page stating there is no obligation for the funds raised to go to his legal proceedings.

So… what does this mean?

The big question is going to come down to “How much can someone practice their religion at work?” to which the answer probably should be “It depends.”

That’s not a very satisfactory way to end the blog, so I will expand on it.

Australians, as a general rule, don’t care if you go to church or the synagogue or the mosque. What you do in your private time is your business, and as long as it doesn’t inhibit my life, you do what you like.

That is where most employers will fall. There may be issues around some religious wear for health and safety reasons, but beyond that, you do you.

If you start telling people how they should live their lives because your religion says so, then there’s a problem. That’s probably creating a bad workplace environment. A friendly discussion about religion is different from saying to your colleagues, “We can’t have drinks after works on Friday because we’ll all go to Hell.”

What about Israel Folau?

Now, Israel Folau was using social media and the press to put forward his religious opinion. As a former Mormon, now member of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church, the latter is known for their unerring belief that the Bible is without error or fault in all its teachings, or at least scripture in the original manuscripts do not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.

As a sporting figure, Israel Folau is expected to speak to the media, make public appearances and use social media. However, his employment contract would almost certainly include clauses dictating broad clauses that don’t harm the organization for which he works. Given that Rugby Australia can’t conduct certain activities without corporate sponsors, and those corporate sponsors can’t fund Rugby Australia without revenue, alienating the LGBTQ+ community would be deemed as harming the organization.

What about his religious freedom?

He still has his religious freedom. No one is stopping him from being a Pentecostal Christian.

What is being stopped from doing is using his position as a sports star to preach the Bible. It is not his job to proselytize from 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, it is (was) his job to play rugby union (and before that AFL and rugby league) well enough to have a $6m property portfolio.

One more point

It is often said that 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 proves that Jesus didn’t want homosexuals entering heaven. However, that is not necessarily the most accurate translation from ancient Greek. Several websites have questioned exactly that, including this one and this one. Admittedly, many others disagree, but not being an expert on the Bible or Ancient Greek is hampering my ability to comment further.

I would point out that translations can be challenging. Short of going back in time and asking the people that wrote the Bible in the first place, we may never know.

In conclusion:

I expect Israel Folau to lose his case at the Fair Work Commission, but waste huge amounts of his and other people’s money in the process.

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