Christian athlete Israel Folau has launched legal action against Rugby Australia after his playing contract was terminated over social media posts expressing his opposition to same-sex marriage. He argued that “no Australian of any faith should be fired for practicing their religion.”
The 30-year-old former Wallabies star was found guilty of a code of conduct breach and stripped of his four-year $4 million contract for an Instagram post that said “Hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters.”
On Thursday, legal representatives for Folau announced they filed an application to the Australian Fair Work Commission and are seeking a declaration that his employment was unlawfully terminated because of his religion, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
In a statement from Folau's legal representatives, the player said: "I will forever be grateful and proud to have played the sport I love for our nation. Ours is an amazing country built on important principles, including freedom of religion. A nation made up of so many different faiths and cultural backgrounds will never be truly rich unless this freedom applies to all of us.”
"The messages of support we have received over these difficult few weeks have made me realize there are many Australians who feel their fundamental rights are being steadily eroded,” he continued.
Folau, Super Rugby’s all-time record try-scorer, had a contract until 2022 and was expected to represent the Wallabies at this year's World Cup in Japan. In addition to his contract being terminated, the athlete lost sponsorship deals with companies, including car manufacturer Land Rover and sportswear brand Asics, notes the BBC.
According to his legal representatives, Folau is seeking "substantial remedies from his former employers should they be found to have breached the Fair Work Act in terminating his employment."
"The termination has cost Mr Folau the best years of his rugby career, participation at the Rugby World Cup, the chance to become the greatest Wallaby try-scorer (a decades-old record he was likely to break), and the associated exposure and opportunities," Folau's application states.
"As well as around $5 million in lost salary, Mr Folau will claim in respect of the loss of these opportunities (renewal of contract, sponsorships, etc). The damages will be particularised in due course, but will be substantial. In addition, Mr Folau will seek civil penalties.”
The athlete will reportedly challenge his firing under section 772 of the Fair Work Act, which prohibits an individual's employment being terminated on the basis of religion.
The controversy over Folau’s faith erupted on April 10 after he shared a scriptural message on social media identifying homosexuality as a sin.
“Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him,” Folau shared on Instagram, along with a series of Bible verses on sin and repentance.
In May, a three-member panel announced that it decided to terminate Folau’s employment over his comments. The decision made the devout Christian the first Australian athlete to be dismissed for expressing religious beliefs.
At the time, Folau said he was “deeply saddened” by the decision but underscored his belief that “the Christian faith has always been a part of my life and I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God's word.”
“Upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club and country,” he said.
Meanwhile, Folau's brother, John, cut ties with the Sydney-based rugby team the Waratahs over the sacking of his older brother, the Daily Mail Australia reported.
Waratahs Coach Daryl Gibson confirmed John's release at the club's training base, saying: "Obviously we gave John some time off for leave, he's come back to us recently and asked for a release which we're happy to grant.
"Obviously John's been in a difficult position for the last week while, he's got really divided loyalties to his family obviously and his brother, but then also to the team.
"He wanted to stress how much he enjoyed being with the team and what a difficult decision that was for him."