Free speech, hate speech and religion

Hi friends welcome to our blog. In this presentation I would like to discuss issues relating to free speech its benefits and limitations and related topics such as hate speech and discrimination.  I consider these to be a very important issue as I believe we are facing quite serious threats to this tradition of freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy.

Before the virus hit us I was preparing something on free speech which was at the time topical here in Australia with our federal government planning to legislate on religious discrimination. The motivation for such a law came as a result of debate regarding same sex marriage. A postal vote or plebiscite was held nationally between 12 September and 7 November 2017 and returned a 61.6% “Yes” vote in favour of same-sex marriage.

As expected the debate brought about some strong language from both sides.  From the view of the anti-marriage advocates such a union was unnatural, marriage was against God’s laws that applied only to a man with a women. If implemented all manner of dire predictions were made.

The other side insisted that it was a restoration of equality with marriage a social institution that should be available to everyone irrespective of sexual orientation.

Thee debate was relatively civil though at times aggressive on both sides. Some opponents were classified as homophobes and supporters as ungodly.

One of the more outspoken opponents of the bill was a well-known even famous Australian Rugby football player; his name is Israel Folau. He was sacked by the ruling body Rugby Australia for making negative public comments about homosexuality. The reason being his breaking of his contract in which he agreed to not make negative or condemning comments about gays and the LGBTI group as the ruling Rugby body wanted to avoid accusations of homophobia. It is not that clear whether the restriction was written into the contract or whether it was a verbal agreement he made with Rugby Australia.

Folau is an Australian citizen of Tongan parents. He has played in all football codes here, Rugby League, Australian Rules and Rugby Union. He is generally seen as being one of the country’s best players and the best paid also. Like many Tongans and those from other island states in the South Pacific he was raised by parents who followed a form of strict evangelical Christianity. They advocate the literal truth of both new and old testaments as the only form of authority. Normally islanders are quiet, saying little about their beliefs, however Folau is a serial critic of gays and felt constrained to break this silence at the time of Australia’s same sex marriage poll indicating he would never support ‘Gay marriage’. Early in 2018 he upped the anti, on Instagram asserting that Homosexuals and other sinners such as ‘robbers, sodomites, drunkards and many others’ are off the hell, ‘unless they repent of their sins”.

This resulted in a public and social media criticism of Folau – though the reaction didn’t phase Folau who said he was only quoting St. Paul in Corinthians;

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revelers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

This quote is also in the Old Testament from which Paul obviously had drawn.

He could have also used this more horrific quote from Leviticus 20:13 which mandates the death penalty

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

The protest against Folau came from the media, LGBTI representatives and his rugby code administration. The Australian Airline Qantas threatened to withdrawn sponsorship and Rugby Australia was forced to act. In short they sacked him for breaking his contract. However, as we will see, he did have his supporters who said he should be free to express his views.

Folau, apparently not at all apologetic about his comments, with a group of supporters decided to appeal his dismissal to the federal court on the basis of religious persecution or discrimination. Folau’s case was his right to free speech and the right to do so on social media, Instagram, twitter, Facebook or anywhere else for that matter.

In his appeal to the Federal court, Folau wanted an apology from Rugby Australia. He managed to get the support of many public figures and wanted basically for the court to rule on the right of anyone to express their religious views. The federal government headed by a Pentecostal Prime Minister supported the case and it arguably was an impetus for the government to come up with a bill supporting the right to be protected from religious persecution and able to express religious views without discrimination.

It is not the purpose of this blog to go into the detail of the Folau legal claim but Folau got an apology of sorts, and, he did get a large payout of approx. $A4 million but did not get his job back. The apologies however were quite weak. However, not deterred, Folau still continues to express his negative opinions about gays to the extent of making gay marriage somehow responsible for the bush fires that were at the time devastating the country. However, he does say that he has no hatred of any individual he was just quoting the bible.

The bill on religious discrimination prepared by the Federal Attorney General Christian Porter failed to get off the ground with almost all parties rejecting different aspects of it. Folau has, as mentioned above, not suffered financially he now has acquired a new contract with the Spanish team, Catalans Dragons.

The whole episode came down to a division in the community over religious freedom and free speech. The division had strange and somewhat surprising advocates on either side; supporting Folau’s right to expressing his religious views (actually most of his statements were biblical quotes and paraphrases). His supporters were high ranking clergy and other well-known public figures such as Alan Jones a highly popular broadcaster (and gay).

Also, Margaret Court, one of this country’s most successful tennis players (winning 24 Grand Slam women’s matches unequaled by anyone) well known for her evangelical religious views and her hatred of LGBTI (particularly transsexuals) has continued to refer to LGBTI members as evil. She has caused a storm of controversy but is undeterred by criticism.

However, against Folau were many of his own team mates, many big business sponsors including as mentioned, Qantas, led by its openly gay head and gay rights advocates.

What are we to make of all this? Is quoting the bible to be seen as hate speech? Do attacks on those who do the quoting constitute attacks on religious freedom?

This is my view.

Folau is quoting or paraphrasing the bible they are really not his own words. However, he is using those words to make his own point about sin, and it seems he mainly has homosexuality in focus, not all the other sins mentioned.  The main point of objection about these quotations has been that of identifying homosexuality (gay) as a crime in the same way that theft and murder are crimes. Being homosexual it is argued is not a matter of choice as theft is, it is the way you are and over which you have no choice. This is certainly what most gays (and others in the LBTQI group) say about themselves, that this is the way they are and choice had no role in this. It is a hardware software phenomenon. Many struggle with this, especially adolescents who consider they may be gay and are trying to some to grips with this. It is a matter of establishing an identity and it can for them be a time of personal crisis that can lead to issues of mental illness anxiety and depression. Many studies show that adolescents with same sex attraction are more likely to be suicidal than their heterosexual peers.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians? About 350 young people aged 15–24 take their own lives every year – more than die on the roads. For every youth suicide, there are 100 to 200 more attempts.  A study by Stephen T. Russell and Kara Joyner, 2001 indicates;

that among primary adolescent suicide risk factors, higher levels of depression and alcohol abuse are reported by youths with same-sex sexual orientation. Other research has indicated that gay and lesbian adolescents report high levels of depression29,30 and substance use and abuse.9,11,31 It has been suggested that for gay and lesbian youths who are concealing their sexual identities, alcohol may be used to numb the related anxiety and depression.32 Research and prevention efforts with this population should focus on depression and substance abuse as precursors to suicidality. [i]

Many other studies support this. Folau seems not to understand this. He is a sports hero probably admired by many LGBTI young people. He condemns them outright and offers no sympathy or assistance.

To be told you’re going to hell does not require you to believe in hell but it does make you feel worthless and unwanted. The word or the concept of hell is a loaded term in our society and even if as most people would nowadays dismiss it as a medieval concept it can still conjure up anxiety for many. Many religions still use it to conjure up fear and with children especially it can impress itself almost unconsciously on our psyche through to adulthood.

The point is now, is it hate speech? Obviously Folau and others like him do have the right to express these views. He hasn’t been charged with any legal offense and it is extremely doubtful that he would as no legislature would legislate against quoting or paraphrasing the bible.

We have to say there are any number of biblical apologists who seek to dilute or explain away the anti-gay, xenophobic, misogynist and slave supporting statements in both the Old and New Testaments. They argue you have to understand the context of the statements and its true meaning. There are Christians who do not take the bible literally and can dismiss these obnoxious and cruel rules as outdated ad irrelevant to current social conditions. However many insist the bible is to be taken literally word for word. They insist that every verse in the bible is divinely inspired and the precise word of God. Israel Folau apparently falls into this latter group.

I don’t think that the apologist’s approaches work as in historical context these are clear, they are the writings of a three thousand year Iron Age desert nomadic culture. They had no understanding of the psychology of mental illness, of science, of the causes of disease or of any notion of equality or of human rights and yet they are quoted as having relevance to a 21st Century culture. As mentioned the New Testament is no different it continues that tradition of homophobia that can’t be explained away.

Some would say that Folau has the right to express his views on homosexuality as a private citizen but how can he? He is not really a private citizen but a celebrity footballer and did after all agree to not make such statements while employed by Rugby Australia. He broke the agreement and got the sack, as he should.

As mentioned above, the comments on homosexuality don’t make much sense anyway and as mentioned above it has been pointed out by many that homosexuality is not a choice as are murder theft and rape as Folau and the bible say. Opponents of Folau views should also be able to say freely that such statements are homophobic.

So what does Federal legislation in Australia say in relation to hate speech and discrimination? They come under, The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 that forbids hate speech on several grounds. The Act added to in the mid 1990’s makes it, “unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, that is likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person, or of some or all of the people in the group”. In June 2018 the NSW government amended the NSW crimes act to include vilification of all groups under LGBTI and defined these groups.

Few charges have been made under any of these acts. In 2010, journalist Andrew Bolt was sued in the Federal Court over two posts on his Herald Sun blog in 2009. Bolt was found to have contravened the Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 . In 2011 Bolt a Federal Court Judge found that Bolt had racially vilified Indigenous people by suggesting that those of “fair skin” were posing as indigenous to exploit the system.

To finish I want to make a few points, though brief, relating to the religious discrimination bill promised in the last Federal election. This was a result of so-called discrimination against the expression of religious views. On its second reading the bill sets out to protect people holding religious views from discrimination. However, it not only protects but gives those holding religious views the right to discriminate against others. Thus, we have a discrimination bill that allows certain groups to discriminate.

According to Fernanda Dahlstrom, (see below)

If the Bill is passed, a person who makes a statement that has the effect of vilifying a person on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation or another attribute, could not be sued under anti-discrimination law if the statement was based on a religious belief unless the statement is made with ‘malicious intent’.[ii][1]

This is strange, I would have thought that vilification implies malicious intent. Apparently not if it’s a religious view. This bill also allows for discrimination in education in religious based schools. Both teachers and students can be dismissed or expelled on the basis of the sexual orientation irrespective of their performance in the job or at school. Medical practitioners can also refuse medication and treatment for patients’ conditions for which they have religious objections. They can for example, refuse to treat patients of other religious or no beliefs and on the basis of sexual orientation only. There are other provisions that allow discrimination in the workplace. The bill appears to override other discrimination legislation and privilege religious rights.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has expressed concern that the bill privileges religious belief over other discrimination protections, that it restricts employers’ right to foster safe and inclusive workplaces, that it undermines access to inclusive medical services and that it unnecessarily expands the religious exemptions under existing anti-discrimination law.1  

There was no doubt about this bill being unpopular but also having the effect of protecting a minority group at the expense of the majority.   The then Attorney General Christian Porter who presented the bill withdrew in Early 2020 for further consideration. Nothing has been heard about this one hopes it just fades away.


[1] Dahistrom F https://www.gotocourt.com.au/legal-news/religious-discrimination-act/ accessed 19/04/2021


[i] Stephen T. Russell and Kara Joyner, 2001: Adolescent Sexual Orientation and Suicide Risk: Evidence From a National Study American Journal of Public Health 91, 1276_1281, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.91.8.1276

[ii]

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