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How the Israel Folau case is dividing Australia – and the Church

Israel Folau holds the record for the most tries in Australian rugby history (Getty)

Not a day passes in Australia without hearing the latest in the saga of Israel Folau, the sporting superstar sacked by Rugby Australia (RA) on April 11 after he posted a biblical warning to “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers” and others on the social media site Instagram.

In a drama that has stretched from his first transgression in 2017, when he publicly opposed same-sex marriage, right through to this year’s federal election, Australia has watched as “Izzy” has been fired and banned from rugby for life; he is now suing RA for A$10 million (£5.8 million, or $7 million) for unjust termination.

In a similar way to Cardinal George Pell, Folau has been held up daily for public disapproval with articles accusing him of being “homophobic”, “dangerous” and “greedy”. He’s even been accused of diverting money from sick children by asking supporters to fund his case.

His wife, Maria, a professional netballer, was put in the firing line as two of her sponsors, ANZ bank and HCF Health Insurance, contacted her employers to declare their disapproval of both her and her husband. On June 24, the international crowdfunding site GoFundMe suddenly shut down Folau’s page requesting money to help in his legal battle, saying it violated its terms of service.

Nicola Britton, the Australian regional manager of GoFundMe, said: “As a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity”, but that “we do not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion”.

Despite the daily criticisms, there has been a stubborn resistance on the part of the Australian public to accept Folau as the villain. Rather, support is growing for the bulky, softly spoken, Polynesian Pentecostal who holds the record for most tries in Australian rugby history.

In a move described by the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt as “delicious”, a grassroots campaign group, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), set up its own crowdfunding site named GodFundMe, raising a record A$2million (£1.1 million, or $1.4 million) from more than 22,000 individual donors in less than two days.

ACL president Martin Iles said that many Australians saw something of themselves in Folau. “They see something of their own concerns,” he said. “Of their freedom getting shut down, about the pinch of political correctness … They see his case as their case.”

When same-sex marriage was legalised by public vote in Australia in 2017, it won by an approximate two thirds majority. It seems that Rugby Australia was betting on a similar majority to support its decision to sack Folau.

However, recent events point not only to a surge in public support for Folau but also to increased concerns about religious freedom and free speech.

On July 2, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called religious freedom a “pressing issue”, while last month Dan Tehan, the minister for education, released a “freedom of speech code”, which he said should be introduced in all universities in response to reports of free speech being stifled on campus.

It’s not clear to what extent sympathy for Folau, or concerns for religious freedom, account for the shock federal election results on May 18. But it is clear that the Labor platform – which endorsed radical pro-LGBT ideology and gender fluidity, as well as the removal of religious exemptions in all schools – did not resonate with the majority of Australians.

In an election post-mortem, long-term Labor member Chris Bowen said that many religious voters felt that Labor had “abandoned” them. He spoke for his electorate in Western Sydney, one of Australia’s most religious and socially conservative regions, which recorded the nation’s lowest support for same-sex marriage in 2017.

What is clear is that the lines are being more sharply defined between two camps, with proponents of LGBT rights on one side and supporters of religious liberty on the other.

Increasingly, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are becoming shorthand for the freedom to speak about homosexuality, transgender issues and other questions of sexual morality and gender. There are few other issues in respect of which freedom of speech is as frequently violated or invoked.

Much like Cardinal Pell, Folau has become the lightning rod for two clashing worldviews – and these views exist both inside and outside the Catholic Church. For some, RA’s decision to sack Folau is a victory for “tolerance” and “inclusivity”, a sign that Australia is a country that doesn’t take suspected bigotry lightly. Further, this group usually thinks that words are a form of “violence”, and that Folau’s words can cause physical harm.

But for others, the case shows an Australia gone mad, where corporate and government submission to LGBT activism is so entrenched that a single comment can trigger a nationwide witch hunt, destroying a man’s life and livelihood.

To date, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has not commented on the case. Currently, the country’s bishops are unavailable for comment because they are in Rome discussing last year’s findings of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse, and preparing for the Amazon synod in October.

Shane Healy, director of communications for Melbourne archdiocese, said that the case was a “court matter regarding breach of contract – something in which the Church does not wish to interfere”. This seems to be the standard institutional response, articulated by Fr Frank Brennan SJ, a human rights lawyer, who said it was a “simple freedom of contract case regardless of Mr Folau’s religious views”.

The notable exception is Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who in a pastoral letter written from Rome on June 29 expressed concern at the “heavy-handed targeting of Israel and Maria Folau for daring to express unfashionable religious views”.

“You don’t have to agree,” he wrote, “with all Mr Folau says or the way he says it to be troubled by the determination of some to destroy him and his family, and also to be concerned about what this means for freedom of speech and belief for ordinary Australians.”

But Catholics do believe what Folau says – in essence if not in specifics, and this creates an extra internal conflict for Catholic supporters of Folau.

For decades, Catholics have not spoken much publicly about sin, hell and the Devil. Many would much rather talk in terms of freedom of religion and speech, metaphysically sanitised Enlightenment concepts unconnected to awkward medieval or televangelist caricatures. Not unlike Rugby Australia, Catholic Australia has its own “branding” issues and sponsors to worry about, and it is not sure that Folau is good PR.

But his actions demand a Catholic response – internal, if not institutional – to the question: do we believe what he says? Or do we simply defend his right to say it?

We have surely come to an extraordinary position in that only Pentecostals such as Folau in Australia, and the student Felix Ngole in Britain, are able publicly to articulate what we all supposedly believe.

Just two weeks ago, Catholics attending Mass would have heard Galatians 5:13-18 read from every pulpit. Many would not have been aware that they were just one verse away from the one that saw Folau banned for rugby for life: Galatians 5:19.

It makes one pause for thought.

Natasha Marsh is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne