SYDNEY: Sacked Wallabies fullback Israel Folau launched legal action Thursday against Rugby Australia’s decision to dismiss him over homophobic social media posts, saying he was seeking “substantial remedies” from the governing body.
The devout Christian said he was defending freedom of religion by taking his case to Australia’s employment watchdog the Fair Work Commission.
“No Australian of any faith should be fired for practising their religion,” the 30-year-old said in a statement.
Folau’s contract was terminated last month after a Rugby Australia tribunal found him guilty of a “high-level” code of conduct breach for posting on social media that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.
Folau opted not to appeal against the tribunal ruling, voicing a lack of confidence in Rugby Australia’s process.
Instead, he has taken his case to the court system, saying his treatment left him “no choice but to stand up for his beliefs and the rights of all Australians”.
“The messages of support we have received over these difficult few weeks have made me realise there are many Australians who feel their fundamental rights are being steadily eroded,” he said.
Folau’s statement revealed the argument his legal team will pursue, including his assertion that he simply posted a message from the Bible.
The fullback, Super Rugby’s most prolific try scorer, was on a four-year contract worth more than AUD$1.0 million (US$700,000) annually when he was sacked.
“The termination of Mr Folau’s employment contract prevented him from playing at the peak of his career and on the cusp of a Rugby World Cup, which would have likely generated even greater exposure and opportunities,” his statement said.
“Accordingly, Mr Folau is seeking substantial remedies from his former employers.”
The Sydney Morning Herald said Folau would be seeking AUD$10 million, including lost sponsorship and marketing opportunities, a sum it said could bankrupt Rugby Australia if they lose the case.
The action, which names both Rugby Australia and his Super Rugby club the NSW Waratahs, claims of breach of contract and unlawful termination under the Fair Work Act, which protects employees from being sacked because of their religion.
Folau’s post has sparked heated debate in Australia, with some defending his right to express views he sees as central to his religious beliefs.
Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby Union defended their decision to axe Folau on Thursday as a breach of contract issue, with the fullback failing to abide by commitments he would not disparage people on the basis of their sexuality.
“He was bound by a Code of Conduct for all professional players in Australia that spells out clear guidelines and obligations regarding player behaviour, including respectful use of social media,” they said in a joint statement.
The governing bodies said that an independent panel sat for 22 hours and reviewed 1,000 pages of evidence to determine “that Israel’s conduct constituted a high-level breach” of the code.
A long-drawn out court battle could prove costly to Rugby Australia, who have already foreshadowed a financial loss in 2019, a scenario that often plays out in a World Cup year when there are fewer home Tests.
Meanwhile, the Waratahs revealed Folau’s brother John had cut ties with the Sydney-based side.
“John has been in a difficult position for the last wee while,” coach Daryl Gibson said of Folau’s younger sibling, a journeyman signing who has never played for the team.
“He has got really divided loyalties to his family and his brother and then also to the team. He wanted to stress how much he enjoyed being with the team and what a difficult decision it was for him.”