If Rugby Australia had existed in the first century of the Christian era, and Paul had had enough talent to be a contracted player, the sport’s national governing body presumably would have ripped up his contract once his first letter to the Corinthians, with its injunction against homosexuality, became public. Just ask star fullback and born-again Christian Israel Folau.
There is no such thing as an own goal in rugby, but Rugby Australia, the game’s governing body in Australia, has done its very best to score one by terminating the contract of Israel Folau. In doing so, it has lost the services of a star fullback who has played 73 tests for Australia.
Rugby Australia’s reason for ending Folau’s career is that he posted on his Instagram account a photo of a notice saying that “hell awaits… drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters.” To this, Folau added some words of his own: “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”
In a statement issued after the sacking, Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle said: “I’ve communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it.”
Folau is a born-again Christian, and his post was an expression of his religious beliefs. To prevent misunderstanding, I should say that I do not share those beliefs. As an unrepentant atheist, I am among those for whom, Folau believes, hell awaits. But that does not trouble me, because there is, in my view, no god, no afterlife, and no hell. Nor do I differentiate, ethically, between homosexual and heterosexual relationships.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Folau’s post falls squarely within traditional Christian teachings that Christians accepted almost unanimously until the twentieth century, and that continue to be held widely – though against strong and growing opposition – among Christians today. The post clearly draws on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul is reported as saying: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men,nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Paul also tells his Christian readers that they must not associate with anyone who is sexually immoral: “Do not even eat with such people.” That would have included not only homosexuals and adulterers, but also sexually active singles.
If Rugby Australia had existed in the first century of the Christian era, and Paul had had enough talent to be a contracted player, Rugby Australia would presumably have ripped up his contract once his letter to the Corinthians became public. That makes it quite bizarre that Castle should have justified Folau’s dismissal by saying, “People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion, or sexuality.” Did she mean that you can feel welcomed in rugby, regardless of your religious beliefs, as long as you don’t express them in public? That looks a lot like telling homosexuals that they can do what they want in the privacy of their bedroom, but they must not show their affection in public because some people might find it offensive.
As this example shows – and as John Stuart Mill argued in his classic On Liberty – once we allow, as a ground for restricting someone’s freedom of speech or action, the claim that someone else has been offended by it, freedom is in grave danger of disappearing entirely. After all, it is very difficult to say anything significant to which no one could possibly take offense. Mill had in mind restrictions imposed by the state, but when employers dismiss employees who make controversial utterances, that is also a threat to freedom of expression – especially when the employer has a monopoly on the employment of workers with special skills, as Rugby Australia does.
Rugby Australia would have a stronger basis for its decision if Folau’s post had expressed hatred toward homosexuals and could have been interpreted as an incitement to violence against them. But the post no more expresses hatred toward homosexuals than cigarette warnings express hatred toward smokers.
If that analogy seems implausible, that’s because you do not take Folau’s beliefs seriously. Granted, for anyone outside that particular faith, it’s hard to take such beliefs seriously. But try putting yourself in the position of someone with Folau’s beliefs. You see people on a path toward a terrible fate – much worse than getting lung cancer, because death will not release them from their agony – and they are blind to what awaits them. Wouldn’t you want to warn them, and give them the chance to avoid that awful fate? I assume that is what Folau believes he is doing. He even tells homosexuals that Jesus loves them, and calls on them to repent so that they can avoid burning in hell for eternity. That doesn’t sound like hate speech.
What should Rugby Australia have done about Folau’s post? It might have just said that people are entitled to express their religious beliefs, and that would have been the end of the story. Only 14% of Australians say that religion is very important to them, and not all among them are adherents of religions that believe in hell. So most Australians would be more likely to laugh off Folau’s beliefs than to take them seriously. Perhaps that is the best way to react to them.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.