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Israel Folau and the rules of prejudice

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Israel Folau (Image via Wikipedia) and Margaret Court (Screenshot via YouTube)

Folau should be sanctioned for his words but we should also be addressing the pervasive culture of fear and hatred ingrained in many of our institutions, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IN APRIL 2018, star footballer Israel Folau was asked by a fan on his Instagram account,

'What was God's plan for gay people?'

Folau replied:

'HELL. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.'

Folau wasn't sanctioned at that point, but he was warned against breaching the code’s policy of inclusiveness. Shortly thereafter, Rugby Australia offered him a four-year, $4 million contract.

The contract signed, Folau then posted an image on his account that read:

'WARNING Drunks Homosexuals Adulterers Liars Fornicators Thieves Atheists Idolators HELL AWAITS YOU.'

 Part 2, section 1, clause 1.3 of the 'Players’ Code of Conduct' policy states:

'Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.'

The star was issued with a conduct breach notice and subsequently faced a hearing by an independent panel, which concluded that he had committed a high-level breach of the players’ code of conduct. Sanctions against him have yet to be announced.

At first blush, this appears to be a relatively straightforward situation. Folau has repeatedly breached the players’ code of conduct and it’s reasonable that Rugby Australia should take action against him. However, in the eyes of some religious practitioners, Folau is being singled out for punishment because he expressed his religious beliefs.

They have written open letters to both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that begin:

'In recent years the protections to be accorded to religious freedom, and the related freedoms of conscience, speech and association, have come under increasing focus within Australia…'

One of the signatories has expressed his concern that the Israel Folau case will 'set a dangerous precedent'  for religious free speech in Australia.

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, posted this tweet in support of Folau:

It is reasonable to conclude that an argument is being made by these religious leaders that their beliefs and their right to express those beliefs trumps codes of conduct and, in this instance, contract law. Apparently, the religious are entitled to the right to express any sentiment inspired by their religion, because religion must be accorded absolute privilege for no reason other than that it is religious.

In 2017, retired tennis star Margaret Court, now a Christian pastor, made similar remarks about LGBTQI citizens and the Safe Schools program:

"That’s all the devil, we’ll say that it’s the devil ...That’s what Hitler did and that’s what communism did, got the minds of the children. And it’s a whole plot in our nation and in the nations of the world to get the minds of the children."

Obviously Court could not be sanctioned, however, there were calls for the arena named in her honour to be renamed. The arena has not been renamed. It is still the Margaret Court Arena. It’s worth both noting and pondering this fact. The question might be, why has Court escaped retribution for her sickening remarks whilst Folau has not?

Writer and academic Ruby Hamad posted her thoughts in this Twitter thread, and they are well worth considering:

As Hamad points out:

Two years ago our mainstream papers were publishing op-ed after op-ed on why gay couples did not deserve to get married, usually with religious justifications. And that was somehow acceptable. But Folau posting a few tweets, well that's where we draw the line hey?

The difference between those op-eds and Folau’s words is that in the former, fear, hatred and prejudice were disguised, albeit thinly, under a veneer of “civility” that, unlike Folau’s wild declarations, rendered them publishable in the mainstream press where they were used as “balance.”

The other difference is that the op-ed writers are predominantly white, as is Court, and Folau is a person of colour. If you’re white, as is this writer, imagine for a moment that you aren’t. And imagine what your reaction might then be to a person of colour being singled out for sanction and condemnation over conduct that is daily performed by white people and their institutions, largely without significant consequence.

It is never acceptable for anyone to vilify others. However, what we ought to consider here is why some of us are sanctioned for vilification and others of us are not. The vilification of LGBTQI people continues to occur on a daily basis, oftentimes by institutions and individuals who are considered "respectable", without much comment. It was particularly virulent during the period that same-sex marriage was subjected to a postal survey — in itself an act of abhorrent prejudice sanctioned by the state.

It is fair enough to sanction Folau for his words. It is not fair enough to behave as if these words exist in a vacuum. They don’t. They exist in a culture of pervasive prejudice, fear and hatred that is largely left alone and unaccountable.

As pointed out above, Folau’s views have the support of many religious people, including the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney who as far as this writer can ascertain, is not being sanctioned or singled out in any way for holding those views and publicly supporting them. Why not?

The argument for context and equality of responsibility should not be interpreted as sympathy for Folau’s expression of his views. He has stated that his faith is more important to him than his football career and that he lives for God. He is prepared to walk away from his second love and his livelihood. The question is, given his commitment to living his faith, why did he sign the contract in the first place, in full knowledge that the conditions of his employment would bring him into direct conflict with that faith? What are the ethics of signing a contract for a large amount of money when you know that contract is in conflict with your beliefs and you are fairly certain you will break it, given your faith demands that you proselytise?

It’s reasonable to posit that Folau acted unethically when he signed a contract he knew his faith required him to break.

The views he expressed are, to this writer, bizarre and inexplicably cruel. Sadly, they are not extraordinary. Indeed, some of those views are held by many who follow the Pentecostal religion practised by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as well as many Catholics and Anglicans — religions unlike Morrison’s, considered to be mainstream. 

There are many followers of those religions who believe religious faith should take priority over secular law and who argue regularly from large platforms that they must be exempted from prohibitions whose intentions are to keep others safe and included. In return for this cruelty and prejudice, their institutions are granted tax-free status by the state.

If anything, Folau’s situation with Rugby Australia highlights the normalised hypocrisy of church and state, and the manner in which creating one “villain” deflects from the need to forensically examine the culture that nurtures such villainy. In this instance, the “villain” is a person of colour and nobody can or should deny the significance of that.

While at first blush the situation may seem straightforward, it is far from that. No matter what the outcome for Folau, the prejudice, fear and hatred his posts expressed remain safely ingrained in many of our institutions, sanctioned by our governments and many of our politicians.

Folau is in the wrong. And he is also a scapegoat. Consider that.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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