Israel Folau leaves the Rugby Australia code of conduct hearing in Sydney. Picture: AAP
Israel Folau leaves the Rugby Australia code of conduct hearing in Sydney. Picture: AAP

Folau feeding into a culture of intolerance

Israel Folau's right to free speech or religious freedom does not trump the right of gay people to be safe from damaging, hateful abuse.

Folau, a celebrated rugby player, is fighting his sacking by Rugby Australia for a social media post saying hell awaits "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle terminated Folau's contract, saying he knew any social media posts that were "in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality" would result in disciplinary action.

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Over the weekend, it took one of Folau's peers - Australia's first openly gay rugby league player Ian Roberts - to explain why his comments are so damaging.

As Roberts said on Channel 9: "There are literally (gay) kids in the suburbs killing themselves."

Roberts wasn't arguing that Folau was to blame for this, but that comments like this contribute to a culture of intolerance, hate and abuse for same-sex people.

"It's these types of comments and these off-the-cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs, who are dealing with their sexuality," Roberts said.

"(They're) confused, not knowing how to deal with it. These type of remarks … can and do push (kids and) people over the edge."

I agree.

Folau's right to hold these views is protected in Australia, but when he uses social media to advance them, it's a different matter.

In this country, freedom of religion is not an unfettered right.

Although the internal right to hold a belief is absolute, the external expression of that belief is subject to certain limitations.

Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that religious freedom is limited by the need to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

This is why Roberts is also right to accuse Folau of "playing the victim" by hiding behind freedom of expression.

Folau's supporters say he was just quoting from the Bible, but this is no excuse for spreading such hatred. There are many passages from the Bible he could have chosen, so why pick one that demonises gay people in this way?

Folau calls himself a Christian, but this is very un-Christian behaviour.

It's also bizarre, given that five years ago, Folau appeared on the cover of the gay Star Observer magazine promoting a gay rugby event and calling for an end to "all forms of discrimination in sport".

LGBTI people - especially those who are rugby players and fans - should not have to pay the price for Folau's latter conversion to hard-line religious views.

I'm more inclined to listen to Roberts than Folau's cousin, Josiah Folau, who insisted "everything he (his cousin) does is out of love".

I'll wager vulnerable young gay people aren't feeling this love.

According to Beyond Blue, suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 45. Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers.

The 2015 Out on the Fields international research report found 82 per cent of gay respondents had heard or been the target of gay slurs and 13 per cent of those targeted said they'd suffered physical assaults.

Former NRL star and Australia’s first openly gay rugby league player Ian Roberts. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Former NRL star and Australia’s first openly gay rugby league player Ian Roberts. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Sixty-four per cent of gay and lesbians surveyed said homophobia was more common in sporting environments than other areas of society; nearly half said they were not accepted by others.

It mirrors Monash University research that shows under-18 male players used homophobic slurs such as "poof" and "faggot" to have a laugh and fit in, but didn't recognise it as damaging to others. Most thought it was normal.

In light of this damning evidence, there is no doubt Rugby Australia has been very patient with Folau, who was given a warning last year when he expressed similar views.

"We would like to see him stay in rugby," Castle said at the time, saying he had "delivered some great outcomes for us and has been a really strong role model".

She noted that Folau should have "put a positive spin on that same message".

It was an absurd cop-out.

There is no positive spin on hate speech.

But Castle is right about one thing: Folau is a role model and what he says matters to his legion of fans. His post about homosexuals awaiting hell has received a depressing 53,000 likes.

Rugby Australia is a foundation member of Pride in Sport, offering best-practice programs designed to make sport more inclusive for the LGBTI community.

Such comments also go against Rugby Australia's own Code of Practice and Inclusion Policy which outlaws homophobia.

Although there are signs this could end up in the courts, let's hope Rugby Australia's sacking of Folau is upheld and we can all go back to concentrating on the game.

Susie O'Brien is a Herald Sun columnist

susan.obrien@news.com.au

@susieob