One Finite Planet

Israel Folau: Religious Persecution in 2019?

First Published:

An Australian rugby player, Israel Folau, faces being disqualified from his high profile professional career over his social media posts expressing his religious beliefs.  The posts in question clearly qualify as hate speech, but it is unfair to judge Folau, as many have done, without a deeper understanding. Despite the posts, closer scrutiny reveals Israel Folau as an individual who clearly harbours no such such hatred. A well intentioned, pious and religious individual who represents, as least in his intentions, the exact type of role model any sporting code could dream of as one the most talented players.  This time, rather than someone with drugs or substance abuse, or violence against women or something of that nature, we have the pious christian facing the ban from the sport.

Let me be clear, I do not support or endorse in any way what he has said, but I do think it is not Folau who is to blame.  How did we get to here?

  • The Offence.
  • In Defence.
  • The Contradiction.
  • Interpreting Religion
  • Limits to Religious Freedom?
  • Cherry Picking
  • Who Is To Blame?
  • Conclusion.

The Offence.

Social media comments made by Israel Folau repeatedly suggest homosexuals will go to hell.  In a society where the mental health an well being of people whos sexuality is not ‘mainstream’ is seen as of vital importance and the only ethical approach, such statements are abhorent at best and being made by a person others look up to could be a cause of significant harm.  True, these social media posts do not uniquely target homosexuals as those who are destined for hell, but homosexuals are the only targets of his comments who are regarded as both innocent and vulnerable.

Israel Folaus has be unrepentant and has refused not withdraw or disown the comments, or even simply remove them from his social media.  The sport of rugby cannot be seen as aligned with such homophobic views that could cause great harm.

In Defence.

Assume for a moment that the statement that hell awaited ‘drunks, homosexuals, adulterers’ and others is a reflection of the religious instruction Israel Folau has received.

Is the threat “denouce your religious beliefs or face retribution” amount to religious persecution?  In his belief, these ‘sinners’ require forgiveness or they will be punished in hell.  If he does harbour no ill feelings against any of these groups, then, in the spirit of a christian missionary, he must make them aware of this message from god in order to save their souls.  If this is the truely the teachings of god, then to made a statement contrary to those teachings would be no only lieing, but far more harmful to those individual affected than the truth.  To lie, would if this were true, be to actually condem those individuals to hell.  So if Israel Folau genuinely beleives this is the word of god, then the only moral path from that perspective is to stand by what he has said.

From the perspective of Israel Folau, there is a monetary evil temptation to distance himself what he has said, and standing by what he has said is the moral path.  He can offer support to the gay community, but not do what he sees as lying and betraying them.

The Contradiction.

Israel Folau holds views of his religion, and freedom of religion dictates the religion is entitled to hold those views. So therefore, Israel Folau is entitled to hold those views, but he is wrong to express the views he is entitled to hold? In fact, he needs to hold his views to himself, even though, his perspective may mean it would be immoral not to express those views. Equivalent to instructing a missionary you cannot spread your message.

There are such strong cases for:

  • Israel Folau should be supported: religious freedom dictates he is entitled to his views and it would be immoral for him to be deceptive about what he believes
  • Isreal Folau should be banned for life: the beliefs expressed by him are hateful, damaging, unacceptable in todays society, and he should withdraw these views or face consequences.

Both cannot be correct, and something has to be wrong!  I suggest it is the religion that is wrong.

The problem is the contradiction of religious freedom, when religion supports views society now considers abhorent. Note that gay sex was illegal in the relevant legal juristriction (NSW) until 1984, so the position of the church matches what was previously the position of the law and of society.   The law has now changed, and not all religions have followed the change.  How do we handle this transition?  Is this contradiction acceptable?

Interpreting Religion

Each religion has ‘sacred texts’ or ‘sacred stories’. As examples (not a complete list) Buddhism has the Sutras, Christianity has The Bible, Judaism the Tora, Tanakh etc, and Islam the Quaran and Hadith, and Hinduism the Vedas.

Each of these families of religion has different groups who interpret these texts in slighly different ways. Sometime very different ways. An actual religion requires interpreting the relevant texts and stories as all are open to different interpretations, and it is the interpretation of the sacred material that defines the religion.

Limits to Religious Freedom?

We live in a society that declares there must be religious freedom…. but without a precise definition of what constitutes a ‘religion’.  It is recongnised that there are interpretations of most religions regarded as ‘extremist’, and thus no longer qualifying as religion.  Islamic extremists who perform acts of terror are quickly judged as not representing an acutal religion, nor do we feel the Christian extremist who committed acts of terror in Christchurch, New Zealand as representing an actual religion. There is a line, and once that line is crossed, the people crossing the line are no longer considered by society to be following a religion, even if those who have crossed the line still see themselves as following a religion.

Declaring extremists who seek to kill people, as not following a valid religion may still be giving too much religious freedom.  Suffering can be inflicted on others without actually killing.  Should a religion that promotes views which cause suffering to individuals or minorities society deems as marginalised, still be considered a religion?

The issue for Israel Folau is that while he is practising what is considered a religion, he is potentially discriminating against a marginilised group and could cause real pain and suffering.  Soldiers are required to recognise when an order should not be followed, but with a religion, followers believe their ‘orders’ actually come from god and are beyond question, making the decision to defy what the religion declares more difficult.  When society defends the rights of the religion to give those orders, that raises the bar significantly further.  We as a society have rules that allow for religions to discriminate against homosexuals in order to protect religious freedom.  But by allowing religions to behave this way, society should also carry part of the blame for the opinions expressed by the religion, and echoed by Israel Filou.

Fitting Interpretations?

You can find text in the bible to support stoning of women who were not a virgin when married, but you can also find religious scholars explaining why this does not mean the practice should be followed.  The bible also appears in many places to support the practice of slavery, and while at one time some religious people of the day did seem to try to the bible as vindification of slavery, I have not seen any recognised religion adopt such a stance recently.

Interpretations of the sacred texts and stories is normally done in a manner that reflects the views, and laws, of society. Keeping interpretations within these bounds requires strong messages from religious leaders, and occasionaly interpretations stray outside the views of society and even the law.

Homosexuality is a particuarly challenging case.  Up until 1984, homosexual acts were illegal in NSW (the state where Israel Folau lives), so any religion declaring homosexuality immoral up until that time was reinforcing the legal position.  However, attitudes, and eventually laws change over time, as happened with slavery at an earlier time.  The change was in the opposite direct than with slavery, which went from acceptable to not acceptable, while homosexuality changed from not acceptable to accepable.  The religious texts did not need to refect that slavery was no longer acceptable, instead people get that law elsewhere and the bible does not explictly state slavery should be practiced.  But with homosexuality, more like sex before marraige, the Bible does contain texts that need very specific interpretation if followers are not to believe that there should be extreme punishment.

I think there is a valid “should we require religious leaders to provide interpretation of religious text that fits within the law?

Hate speech itself can be seen as outside the law.

Cherry Picking

‘Cherry picking’ with religion is where an individual chooses which elements of a religion to follow, and which not to follow. An online search will reveal both people who feel cherry picking is essential and those who use the term as if ‘cheery picking’ is universal understood to be wrong.  In summary, this is not universally accepted as sometthing individuals following a religion should practice. It can be argued that Israel Folau should have cherry picked his religion and on his own initiative left “homosexuals should also go to hell” on the tree, but cherry picking is not usually practiced by regular church goers…as a group, those who go to church regularly tend the follow the cherry picking of their religious leaders.

So Who Is To Blame?

In this case, I would suggest the religious leaders of the pentacostal faith Israel Folua attends should bear more blame than Israel Folau. The church gives him the word of god and if those leaders where to suggest their was some ambiguity in the interpretation of the scriptures with regard to homosexuals, then I do not believe Israel Folau would be supporting those statement.

I also suggest that, as a society, we need to apply to form clear guidlines about what is valid for a religion to cherry pick and what is not.  In Australia, the potlitical sphere has been quite insistent that religion is still free to discriminate against homosexuals, and if that is to change more pressure needs to be brought to bear.


If we do wish to allow religions the freedom to hold such views as they homosexuals are inherently sinners, then such an expression of outrage when the follower of a religion repeats what we declare his religion free to teach sounds hypocritical.

I feel we should express more outrage at the need for specific limitations on what a religion can teach, and less outrage at the individual.

What Israel Folau said, is in my opinion, very wrong, but we are not holding those responsible for him saying it to account.  Blaming Isarael Folau is simply taking the easy path. Have we not yet learnt that allowing religions to self regulate is dangerous?


2 Responses

  1. Your essay is very well thought out and really well presented. I do not agree with your conclusion, and I will tell you why.
    I am of the same faith as Israel Folau, and, according to the Bible, what he said, is correct. However, it is not complete.
    When I look at the New Testament in the Bible I see Jesus welcoming sinners. When I read further I can summarise it all, simply by saying that it is the LOVE of God that we are to preach, not the wrong of the sinner. What Folau did was scream out the wrong. There is no love in that.
    In the same situation I would simply demonstrate the love of God to the person, (and I have had occasion to do that) and what they eventually do with that is their business. If indeed they do end in Hell, well, they can’t say they weren’t shown the alternative. And if it changes situations, well, then God’s Love has prevailed. What if Folau had invited homosexuals to a dinner and shown them how much God loves them without judgement? What sort of relationships could he well have fostered between his church and the people he calls ‘sinners’?
    We are told in the Bible not to judge but to Love. I did not see any love in Folau’s statement and that saddens me immensely. I sincerely hope that there is nothing in Folau’s life that a Bible believing Christian can see to be condemned by God’s Word, because if he is treated as he has treated others, then his life may very well be very miserable.
    I hurt to think that our faith is judged by people on the basis of Folau’s words.

    1. Thank you for your comment. As a person of the same faith, it is difficult for you to consider not “how do the words spoken fit with our faith” , but rather “what determines when words of a faith break with what is acceptable with being a faith”. Generally most of us agree that interpretations of religion that seek to justify the KuKluxKlan or terrorism have well and truley crossed the line. But where is the line, perticlulary when considering far less extreme examples. To me, the line is crossed when there is any hint of applying punishments not consistent with relevant laws to people who have not chosen that religion. So delaring that “for people of our religion. we believe” could have been an improvement. A problem is that ‘Hell’ is a concept and punishment that crosses religious beliefs, so the decaration of what is wrong or right crosses outside his religion, and is now against what the law has declared as universally wrong or right. I take the test of “how can I look at terrorists and ensure find the clear rule that determines what they preach cannot be seen as a valid religious belief.


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