Courts beckon as Folau ponders appeal against sacking

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – After a statement saying he was deeply saddened by his sacking from Australian rugby and was considering his options on an appeal, Israel Folau’s public pronouncements on the matter on Friday were limited to religious posts on social media.

They were utterly uncontentious, by stark contrast with the meme he shared on April 10 that said gay people, among others he and his fellow fundamentalist Christians viewed as sinners, were condemned to hell if they did not repent.

That was the post that Rugby Australia felt forced them into starting the process that ended up with the termination of his four-year contract but the governing body are well aware that Friday’s decisive move might not be the end of the process.

Folau has 72 hours — until Monday afternoon Sydney time — to lodge an appeal over the decision of the disciplinary panel which recommended the termination, and there remains a possibility the case might end up in the courts.

The issue became a touchstone for concerns by some in Australia that freedom of speech was being eroded and became a minor theme in the political campaigns that concluded in Saturday’s national election.

Former Wallabies coach turned radio presenter Alan Jones was among Folau’s most prominent supporters and he described the decision as “monstrous”, adding that the player would definitely appeal the ruling and might not stop there.

“I’ve spoken to Israel, there’s no surprises here,” the 78-year-old told Sydney radio station 2GB.

“The matter will now proceed to the courts of the country and if need be, the highest court of the country.”

The Australian Christian Lobby, which produced an open letter in support of Folau that attracted some 30,000 signatories, were quick to express their “disappointment” at RA’s decision.

“The decision to fire Israel Folau for posting a paraphrased bible verse is madness,” said managing director Martyn Iles.

“Israel Folau’s conduct amounts to mere speech — he has done nothing criminal, he has not publicly disgraced himself, and he has not mistreated anyone. Rugby Australia’s penalty is high handed, inconsistent, and anti-Christian.”

TEST OF FAITH

The process has hit the 73-test Wallaby hard in the pocket, of course, costing him not only a contract reported to be worth A$4 million ($2.75 million), but a lucrative endorsement contract with sportswear brand Asics, as well as legal fees.

It has become clear, however, that he views his case as a test of faith, telling the congregation at his church last weekend that compromising on the matter would be akin to succumbing to the temptation of Satan.

His brief statement on Friday also included references to the “right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of expression” and thanks to those who “do not share my beliefs but have defended my right to express them”.

Rugby Australia’s Raelene Castle, while on the one hand maintaining it was a simple matter of an employee breaking their contract of employment, was equally in no doubt that the decision had wide ramifications.

“This is a decision that will change the landscape for sport across Australia and possibly internationally,” she said on Friday.

“The tribunal were the best possible experts in this field that we could bring together. They have spent a lot of time making sure they get this right because it will be a landmark, it will be important. And it is important, it’s a big decision.”

Castle has made it immanently clear that she is determined everybody should feel welcome in Australian rugby union regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexuality and that the blame for the case lay squarely in Folau’s actions.

She was pragmatic about the prospect of a lengthy legal case that the cash-strapped governing body can ill-afford.

“Ultimately, Mr Folau will make his decision and we’ll deal with that when he has.”

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