VIC ROWLANDS. Israel Folau – a line in the sand.

If Israel Folau cannot find a way to qualify his homophobic interpretation of the Bible so that it does not cause hurt and offence to other people, his reputation as a person may well be the main casualty of his wilful disrespect.

The political storm over the legal question on whether a private employment contract can restrict or override a fundamental human right of religious freedom in relation to free speech, and how the government should act to protect it, will be a lawyers’ picnic and end up in the courts. The legislative difficulty will be producing something that cannot be hijacked or twisted in its intent. Legislation will provide the words but not necessarily a solution. The accompanying moral questions, impossible to corral into law, could prove to be more destructive and pervasive. Sporting bodies, schools, businesses and organisations across the country have acted to stamp out homophobia. This is a secular country, individual freedom of religious belief does not carry with it the authority to subvert the letter or the spirit of the law of the land.

There will be little lay person public sympathy for Folau if he knowingly signed up to a lucrative work contract worth millions that proscribed what he could say in public. It will cut little ice with the thousands of everyday people who have unsuccessfully fought the fine print in contracts and agreements with banks, insurance companies, and the like. He could have refused to sign. He also could have qualified what he said and chose not to.

By saying that homosexuals would burn in hell without qualification Folau also inferred that they should burn in hell. Substitute any name of someone who is openly homosexual and say “Person A should burn in hell because they are homosexual” and a great many people in the community will take serious offence, particularly if it is personalised as a member of their family or a close friend, because it fails the decency test people live by every day. Folau feels it is his divine right to say what he believes, even if it is hateful vilification to others. “Burn in Hell” and “Death to the Infidels” are moral equivalents.

The campaign to control what is loosely called “hate” speech would be more effective if it sprang from wide, determined, public outrage with pressure on the offender rather than the imposition of a law designed to control it. But it has to be broad, tempered, public condemnation because public outrage in its most brutal form marginalises many who might support the core issue.

This is not new territory. The country has been edging towards this place with the advent of social media and the combative and untrammelled opposition which has become the hallmark of recent politics. In 2011 Tony Abbott, standing on a platform with a large sign “JuLIAR BOB BROWN’S BITCH” flanked amongst others by two senior Liberal women, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella, comprehensively failed the decency test. Abbott was rewarded with government and the prime ministership in the ensuing election, but poetic justice saw all three end their careers ignominiously.

People argue that much worse has been done in the past but that is partly the point – that was then, this is now. In the recent marriage equality vote the public unambiguously told the politicians they had little time for discrimination against gay people and the government should keep views, essentially grounded in religious belief, out of legislation.

The right Folau espouses is a right to believe, it is not a right to impose his beliefs on others. Folau’s supporters are noisy but may well be fringe small if research such as the recent Essential Report (Guardian 9/7) is representative. It found “A strong majority of respondents, across all voting groups, it should be added, reject the idea that religious freedom should be used as an excuse for abusing others” and “People also support the idea that they should think through how their words can affect others, even if it means that people are less likely to say what they really think. What they don’t support, however, is the need for stronger laws to protect people who express their religious views in public.” People accept the secularity of the country which does not privilege religious belief over the common decency expected of the community as a whole. The report concludes,“This suggests a collective desire for a degree of common sense sadly lacking in the current cycle of outrage, that this is not a fight about absolutes, but an argument for individual self moderation…and the public just wants Folau to recognise that his celebrity and social media following carry with them levels of responsibility.”

A decision in favour of Folau risks destructive collateral damage. Many at the core of support for Folau are also opponents of initiatives such as the Safe Schools program, the nature of which is regularly publicly misrepresented by religious groups. But they also should give thought to what difficulties and division a decision in favour of Folau, with his high sporting profile, could foment in schools where they have worked hard to build respectful relationships, tolerance and understanding between individual students. Is there a defined age when students can claim the right to express views such as Folau’s on social media about other students on the basis that it is an extension of their religious beliefs? If not why is it right at any age? Are we assuming students would not do this? Cyber bullying, now a serious problem for young people in particular, suggests otherwise.

This case is also important because there remains a residual suspicion that fundamentalist religious groups did not really accept the marriage equality result and this is part of a continuing effort to undermine it. The Australian Christian Lobby offered Folau funding for his legal defence and fringe religious and political groups are always looking to move on issues like abortion rights and religion in education.

Expecting to resolve this issue by legislation will be problematic other than in general terms. A glimmer of hope is that the public generally, setting aside the noisy extremes, seem to have a greater capacity to recognise the necessity of moderation in the face of conflict better than politicians. The country has to have a basic faith in the decency of its people. Folau may well be more heavily influenced by a realisation of the impact of his beliefs if it leads to a legacy where his sporting achievements are diminished because of his views. If he wants people to believe he is essentially a good person he has to control the insensitivity he shows to others.

It is tempting to say just ignore him, but this won’t go away. The radical advocates of free speech are the ones who often don’t recognise the boundaries of decency. Folau must not be allowed to win. Free speech, religious freedom, response to the child abuse royal commission and indigenous recognition will test the country’s inner moral fibre. We need to go forward not backwards. Much better to encourage what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature”. Basic decency is the core of a fair go.

Vic Rowlands is a former secondary teacher and school principal

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