Foul Play: Australian Rugby International Israel Folau Seeks $10 Million in Damages from Rugby Australia

June 11, 2019

3 min read

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What's going on here?

After having his contract terminated by Rugby Australia for a social media post stating “hell awaits” gay people, Israel Folau is seeking up to $10 million in damages on the grounds of religious discrimination.

What does this mean?

The international rugby player (who has been capped 73 times for Australia and is Super Rugby’s highest try scorer) has submitted his claim to the Fair Work Commission that his contract worth $5 million was terminated unlawfully. He has argued that “no Australian of any faith should be fired for practicing their religion”. The value that Folau is seeking could rise to $10 million due to terminated sponsorship deals (from the likes of Asics and Land Rover) and earnings linked to the 2020 Rugby World Cup in the aftermath of his homophobic comments.

In April, Folau posted an image on Instagram that read “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” Following a three-day hearing, over which 1000 pages of evidence considered and Folau’s refusal to take down the social media post were considered, Folau’s contract was terminated without any appeal within the 72-hour time limit. Now, at the final hour, Folau is claiming that this breached Section 772 of the Fair Work Act, which outlaws the dismissal of workers on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Rugby Australia noted that, whilst the $10 million sum would not bankrupt them, it was merely diverting financial support away from grassroots development. The RA added that rugby is a “sport that is proud of the values of inclusion, passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork… We will defend those values.”

What's the big picture effect?

In 2018 a review on religious freedom conducted by Philip Ruddock (the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission) called for the creation of a Religious Discrimination Act. In Australia there already exists separate acts that cover racial, sex, age and disability discrimination. But there is not one that covers religious discrimination, which is only covered in an employment context in the Fair Work Act. Currently only Sikhs and Jews are protected by the Racial Discrimination Act that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of “race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin”. Yet Muslims and Christians are neglected by the act as they are not considered a single ethnic group.

What many fear, however, is that a Religious Discrimination Act would act as a “smokescreen for LGBTQ+ discrimination” in the words of Australian Liberal MP Tim Wilson. The debate around the possible creation of a Religious Discrimination Act is really more centred on how it would affect other groups in society. In 2018, when Folau had been cautioned for describing homosexuality as a sin, those on his side argued that his beliefs were being disrespected. They argued that he should be allowed to express his opinions and that free speech considerations should prevail. However, others argued that the correct balance must be struck in regards to free speech. This case will raise these same concerns and, whether successful or not, may effect MPs’ views about whether Australia does need a Religious Discrimination Act.  

Folau failed to appeal his dismissal within the designated 72-hour limit.The fact remains that his social media post is clearly against Rugby Australia’s values and is explicitly hateful in nature. Yet he is such a huge figure in sport and, as the case is unprecedented in Australian sport, it will certainly get Australians and rugby fans debating the issue.

Whether Israel Folau will be able to successfully claim religious discrimination as a cause for unfair dismissal remains to be seen.

Report written by Will H​

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