Should Israel Folau not be allowed to express his personal opinions?
Should we respect the distinction between his personal opinions and his work life
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle listens to questions from the media after meeting with Israel Folau. Photograph: Getty Images
However much I disagree with him, Israel Folau should be allowed to express the opinion that gay people are going to hell, without being punished by Rugby Australia.
And I take that stance not because I’m a let-her-rip libertarian but because I’m a progressive who respects a distinction between his personal opinions and work life.
Simply put – if it’s clear that Folau’s opinion is expressed in a personal capacity and not representative of what the Wallabies think, then what business is it of theirs to punish him for a belief shared by some evangelical Christians?
Most people are fine with the idea the government shouldn’t be telling people what they can think and say, but for some reason give employers a leave pass to enforce their opinions on their employees when the harm is the same: people aren’t free to express conscientious beliefs.
That line of argument says, if you signed a social media policy or inclusion policy that allows your employer to control what you say about certain topics or on certain platforms, it is no infringement on freedom of speech.
Well, everyone has to eat to live, everyone has to work somewhere and nowadays many employers have social media policies. In a highly corporatist society where any and possibly all of my potential employers reserve the right to control what I say on a personal social media account, there is an element of economic coercion in agreeing to these policies.
The harm to young gay people from hearing that their favourite rugby player thinks they’re going to hell is very unpleasant, and enough to convince some that the progressive response is to shut it down.
But let’s try putting the boot on the other foot and see whether the employer-knows-best approach is really so hot to trot.
Football reporter Scott McIntyre was sacked by SBS over tweets accusing Australia’s war heroes the Anzacs of atrocities including “widespread rape and theft”.
If you were outraged by that as an act of censorship that sought to impose a majority opinion and suppress dissent, then you’d better leave Folau free to express his questionable interpretation of scripture.
How about David Pocock – a Wallaby outspoken in favour of LGBTI equality – if he had been punished or forced to apologise in less enlightened times for a pro-gay statement? It starts to sound downright Orwellian.
What are we to do then with such an unpleasant and socially harmful belief about gay people?
Get one of the many gay Christians who are able to reconcile those two aspects of their identity to rebut Folau’s understanding of scripture.
In expressing this view, it might be suggested that I’ve confused freedom of speech with freedom from consequence. Not so.
There are a range of other consequences I’d be happy to accrue to Folau. People who disagree can shun him socially and tell anyone who’ll listen that fundamentalist religion is a harmful force in society.
Sponsors can pull their support for the Wallabies. I think that is particularly foolish because the existence of the inclusion policy and other pro-gay Wallabies should make it clear enough these are Folau’s personal views not those of the team. But nobody can tell Qantas what to do with their own money.
Perhaps Rugby Australia could make Folau more clearly disclaim that his opinions are personal. Or take any one of the many other actions that could help weed out ingrained homophobia in sport.
I don’t think just telling the one hardline Christian on a rugby team to shut up is any kind of solution to homophobia. If it seems nasty that some religious people think gays are going to hell, it is. Guess what? Religious people think plenty of other religious people are going to hell as well.
We can’t protect people from the ugliness of certain beliefs without infringing the rights of others. The only solution is to talk people around so there is less hate. That or just keep your eye on the ball.
*Paul Karp is a Guardian Australia reporter