Folau free speech debate: both sides need to show tolerance

Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

It will be deeply ironic if rugby union star Israel Folau is fired for condemning a bunch of various categories of 'sinners' to hell unless they repent.

After all rugby is supposedly the game they play in heaven.

Yet the deeply religious Folau is likely to be stripped of his ability to play professionally - while it's hard to imagine that many of his colleagues could live up to his list (which included drinkers, for a start).

Of course Mark Twain once said you go to heaven for the climate, and hell for the company. But if Folau is right, heaven may well deserve its reputation for peace and quiet: most of us will be making the trip below.

However, not only has most of the commentary on the Folau issue missed the irony, it has missed the point altogether.

The focus has been on free speech issues. Folau's defenders have claimed that Rugby Australia impinged his right to free speech, while opponents have argued freedom of speech is only the right to express your opinions without receiving a legal penalty. It is not freedom from consequences.

In one sense, the opponents are right: Australia has no substantive protections for free speech and it is broadly accepted that employers can impose some restrictions on their employees' speech, especially if that speech harms the employer's business interests or reputation.

But it's not primarily Folau's free speech that is being compromised: it is his freedom of religion. Specifically, it is his right to hold conservative Christian religious beliefs, and manifest these beliefs in public.

And it is far less clear that society is happy with businesses just impinging on freedom of religion whenever they feel like it. If employers can discipline - and in all likelihood, fire - someone for nothing more than expressing their religious beliefs, then all our freedoms are at risk.

To put it another way: do those calling for Folau's head really want to establish the principle that employers have more or less unfettered discretion to fire employees if their beliefs might be 'offensive'?

Such a right will not just be deployed selectively against the enemies of political correctness. Nor will sacking Folau actually resolve the issue: the conflict is really between Christianity and progressive values.

Folau was expressing biblical Christian teachings that, though far from universally accepted, are shared by many Christians, as well as followers of other major religions such as Judaism and Islam.

Several of Folau's teammates liked his post. Which is why claims that Folau and others are welcome to believe whatever they like (as long as they don't post about it on social media) are nonsense.

It is the naive hope that if he doesn't talk about it, we can all just pretend his beliefs don't exist.

Rugby Australia doesn't have to 'like' Folau's social media efforts, but we should be careful about cheering on their attempts to sack him.

Another irony: this situation is rather like the US military policy 'don't ask, don't tell' where gay people were allowed to be in the military but only if they didn't speak up about it. Now Christians can play rugby for Australia as long as they don't talk about the difficult bits of their faith in public.

Of course, gay people have every right to be deeply upset with religious institutions and their vocal proponents. Religions have historically persecuted and forced their beliefs on them.

At almost every turn, religion has been used as justification to thwart gay rights.

Nor should we forget that just about everyone on Folau's list copped it one way or another from the church. Religion was a key driver of the temperance movement in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

No-fault divorce was illegal until the 1970s, mirroring Christian teaching. And, at various points throughout history, atheists were ostracised from society (or used as firewood). But this is why freedom of religion is important: it is the only thing able to also guarantee freedom from religion.

Folau's right to believe gay people are headed for hell is equal to Marxists' right to believe religion is nothing more than the opiate of the masses.

Elevating either opinion over the other ultimately diminishes freedom for all.

The solution to historical Christian intolerance is not tyrannical progressive 'tolerance', where people are not allowed to express genuinely held religious views for fear of offending others.

Tolerance should be about expanding the tent, permitting those once considered undesirable to take their rightful place in society. It should not be a weapon to ostracise those who have different beliefs.

Rugby Australia doesn't have to 'like' Folau's social media efforts, but we should be careful about cheering on their attempts to sack him.

Simon Cowan is research director and Monica Wilkie is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.