Teachers' Christian Fellowship of NSW

Israel Folau and religious freedom

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

Israel Folau and religious freedom: Implications for Christian education

In recent months, Israel Folau has been blamed for most of the world’s problems – the demise of the Waratahs, the undermining of the Wallabies, the destruction of the Australian Rugby Union, the suicide of young gays, the disillusionment of young Australians and the promotion of a Christian sect outside of mainstream Christianity. Claiming religious freedom from a Biblical basis, he posted on his Facebook page messages about some groups of people, including homosexuals, stating that if they did not repent and turn to Jesus they would go to hell. It is not clear if Falou believes homosexuals go to hell because they are homosexual or because of their homosexual activities or both.

In response, the Australian Rugby Union announced that he would be sacked because this post broke their code of conduct. It then set up a process that found a high-level breech of this code and terminated his contract. The argument has been about freedom to express religious viewpoints and the enforceability of employment contracts. Only in the courts will this matter be resolved one way or the other and the loser will not stop their fight for “justice”. And its all been complicated by the fact that everyone thinks Folau is a great guy, sincere and caring of all those around him.

Religious freedom: Real or illusionary?

Since losing the gay marriage debate and census in 2018, many Christians are having difficulty in accepting the result and want exemptions made. Encouraged by the recommendations of the Report of Ruddock Committee Religious Freedom Review they have sought to pressure the government into legislating for greater religious freedom. Their concerns became an issue in the last election, which saw an unexpected swing to the Coalition, because these matters were resonating among people of faith, and not only Christians. The Coalition was seen to be more likely to take up the Ruddock recommendations and protect religious freedom. Few would disagree that Australia is a country in which Christians can practice their religion without fear. But in recent years growing secularism and an anti-religion lobby have affected the status quo. Supported by some media and media commentators, Christians have been feeling ignored in their bid to have their views represented in the public square. Christian schools have been feeling the pressure of criticism of enrolment and employment policies and the provision of special religious education (SRE) in public schools has come under increasing scrutiny and complicated administratively by the addition of classes in ethics and the loss of the long-standing battle about SRE on the enrolment form.

Another significant issue is the lack of inclusion of teaching about religion in the Australian curriculum and the curriculum of NSW where avoidance of the issue, and lack of any constructive engagement, have left the NSW curriculum supporting religious illiteracy. And where is religious freedom mentioned in the curriculum?

So, there is a conundrum that freedom to practice religion remains strong but inclusion of religion into public life is being resisted at the same time that secular laws, particularly related to discrimination, are being imposed on religious institutions. The Folau case has become a test in which there is great interest to see how far religious freedom, or the right to express religious views actually extends when these views are in conflict with the employer’s values or those of their sponsors.

Religious freedom and the scriptures

The current desire by many Christians to protect religious freedom, or rights to express their religious beliefs, is hard to find in the scriptures. In the early church under Rome, Christians faced persecution and Paul’s judicial appeals based on his rights were as a Roman citizen. 1 Peter 2 outlines an approach by early Christians to be submissive to their Roman overlords as a way of being distinctive in their society and honouring to God. While this approach is understood in an autocracy, it does not translate automatically to a democracy in which there are many voices, some of which are Christian. If Christians are to be the salt and light of the world, they will need to engage their communities to bear that witness. How much of that engagement is about standing up for their religious freedom, interpreted as rights, is open to debate.

Much of the New Testament is about Christians being servants to others by following the example of Christ who came to serve not to be served. A committed approach to the needs of the poor and the spread of the Gospel might be more in keeping with Christ’s command to love God and others, than Christians campaigning for more religious freedom rights. While acknowledging that Christians must be prepared to stand up for their faith and thereby influence the society in which they live, I am not sure how these demands for greater religious freedom or protection of religious rights can be justified.

In this regard, I am not sure I understand support groups like the Australian Christian Lobby in supporting Israel Folau’s case. What outcome do they want and how will it strengthen the church’s mission? No matter what the court outcome, both sides of the debate will attempt to strengthen their positions through legislation. The church in Australia is still recovering from the child abuse scandals and now entering the public square seeking legislative privilege to maintain or allow what the world perceives as their discriminatory rules, protocols and actions. This is not going to help the mission of the church in the world.

What is the mission?

Whatever the outcome, there will be implications for Christian education both in the way Christian and church schools operate and in how religious education is included in the curriculum and how it operates in public schools. The public education battles are for me much more important than a focus on rights that have the potential to weaken our mission rather than strengthen it. If as much energy was put into promoting Christian education as is being put into protecting religious freedom rights, then the spread of the Gospel may well be more advanced.