EMPLOYMENT

Sacked Player to sue Rugby Australia over anti-gay comments 

The story of high profile rugby player Israel Folau will have come to most people’s attention by now as it has garnered significant media interest. Folau has been one of Australia’s top players over the last few years and was widely tipped to be one of the stars of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan this autumn.

However he will not be taking part as his contract was terminated by Rugby Australia (RA) in May after he posted on his Instagram account a banner that read;

Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters - Hell awaits you."

Notably Folau had previously been warned by RA officials over other anti-gay messages he had posted on social media contradicting RA’s core values which are stated to be passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork. RA stated that his recent post equated to a high level breach of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct and therefore the reason for Folau’s dismissal. RA’s players’ code of conduct stipulates that players should “treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability.”

Folau and his representatives did not accept the dismissal was fair and that the post was merely an expression of his deeply held Christian beliefs. Initially, mediation through the Fair Work Conciliation had been convened but failed to resolve the dispute. Subsequently, he has now launched legal proceedings against Rugby Australia alleging that he has been a victim of religious discrimination. He is arguing that his contract was unlawfully terminated because of his religious beliefs and his right to free speech has been violated. Folau has said that he will be seeking to be reinstated to the team and awarded compensation in the range of A$10m.

This is an interesting case as it involves competing interests and will potentially establish a precedent for employment contracts going forward. It has ignited widespread debate in Australia with views split as to whether Folau was exercising freedom of speech to outline his religious views or whether the post was tantamount to hate speech. Additionally, it opens the door to debate surrounding the extent to which an employer can control an employee’s social media comments. This is becoming a more prevalent issue with the increase of social media usage in today’s society.

For any queries on the issues raised in this case or any other employment queries please contact the Employment team at MMW.

 

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