Going Upstairs: If we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammelled right to advance their understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.
ONE OF THE FIRST things I learned as a young trade union organiser was: “You cannot contract out of statute law.” What does that mean? It means that if you enjoy a statutory entitlement to three weeks paid holiday, then your boss cannot legally require you to sign a contract limiting your paid holiday to just two weeks. This prohibition stands as one of the most crucial protections of English Common Law. Without it, the rights guaranteed to citizens by statute would be routinely signed away on pain of their not securing – or retaining – paid employment.
Tell that to Israel Folau!
In spite of the fact that the Australian Constitution explicitly guarantees to each citizen the freedom of religion, Folau’s contract with the national Australian rugby team has been terminated on account of his religious beliefs concerning homosexuality.
No matter that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion must, logically, include the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs. No matter that the Australian High Court has ruled that the democratic character of the Australian Constitution implies the enforceable entitlement of all Australians to all the freedoms associated with the practice of democracy – most particularly, the freedom of expression. According to Folau’s employers, his statement regarding the ultimate fate of sinners (which they have branded homophobic) has brought Australian Rugby into disrepute – and his contract has been terminated.
That bit about bringing his employers into disrepute is crucial to the outcome of the legal challenge Folau is determined to mount against his termination.
One of the other things I learned very early on in my (brief) career as a trade union organiser is that our paid employment is still defined as a “master/servant” relationship. Under law, one of the many duties we, “servants”, owe our “masters” is the protection of their good reputation. Our employers have a legal right to expect that their employees refrain from doing anything which is likely to bring them into “disrepute”.
Clearly, this legally enforceable right of the masters to curtail the speech of their servants runs headlong into the right of servants – as citizens – to exercise their freedom of expression. The question thus becomes one of determining which takes precedence. The fact that servants have a legal obligation not to harm their master’s reputation. Or, the fact that masters, along with everybody else in a democratic society, have a legal obligation to recognise their fellow citizens’ right to speak freely about the things that matter to them?
For a conservative fundamentalist Christian, the ultimate fate of those who sin is eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. Fundamentalists would, therefore, argue that Christian love requires the faithful to do all that they can to rescue sinners from the torments of hellfire: by warning them of the fate that awaits them; and by imploring them to change their ways.
It cannot fall to a believer’s employer to determine what should, and should not, constitute a sin in any given religion. That would represent an entirely unwarranted arrogation of power over that worker’s spiritual and moral life. Nor can it be just that their employees’ constitutional right to freedom of religion, and their democratic right to freedom of expression, is set aside on account of some supposed obligation to protect their boss’s reputation – as s/he defines it – at no matter what cost to their conscience and their liberty.
It has been argued that Folau’s statement about homosexuality constitutes a genuine threat to the well-being of young, gay people. But, surely, that can only be the case if those affected accept, as fact, Folau’s claim that eternal damnation awaits unrepentant sinners? This, in turn, presupposes that young, gay people are not free to reject the rugby-player’s theologically unsophisticated and deeply conservative Christian faith. That their own beliefs about human love and solidarity are not infinitely stronger than those of Folau’s fundamentalist Christianity, which has lost sight completely of the boundless and unconditional love of its founder.
And if we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammeled right to advance their own understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.
As this story unfolds, it’s becoming increasingly clear the only statute Israel Folau has contracted out of is Christ’s unequivocal commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 June 2019.