The rugby authorities are trying to intimidate and silence those with firmly held Christian beliefs, a Northern Ireland clergyman has claimed.
Rev David McIlveen, a retired Free Presbyterian minister, spoke out after Rugby Australia (RA) confirmed its intention to sack full-back Israel Folau over what have been deemed “homophobic” social media posts.
The 30-year-old devout Christian, who is likely to miss this year’s World Cup, said on his Instagram account last week that “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. He had previously been warned about his conduct after publishing similar comments online.
England No 8 Billy Vunipola offered support for Folau’s latest controversial post on his own Instagram account, resulting in a formal warning from the Rugby Football Union.
Folau has requested a code of conduct hearing, meaning a date will now be set by RA to consider the case and determine the player’s future.
“I am very disappointed at the way he (Folau) is being treated. I think it is both unnecessary and unjustifiable,” Rev McIlveen told the News Letter.
“He was quoting a verse from 1 Corinthians chapter six, a verse that includes the different outworkings of sin in a person’s life and it does include homosexuality, but it also includes drunkenness, lying and so on. He was simply quoting that verse.
“To be condemned for quoting the scriptures in the way that he has been, and to have it turned into an expression of hate by some people, again I stress it is totally unjustifiable.
“I think we are focusing in on a very serious situation and I do commend Israel Folau for speaking as he did and simply being a conduit for God’s word.
“He hasn’t committed an act of immorality. He hasn’t caused any offence to one individual by naming them. He has simply quoted God’s word.”
Rev McIlveen said the case is “a lot more serious than stopping a man from playing rugby”, and accused the rugby authorities of trying to “gag” players with religious beliefs.
“Can we expect Christian people to be pressurised and intimidated into silence? I think really that is what this campaign is about, to silence the voice of the Christian. And from my personal point of view that is not going to happen,” he added.
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute – the organisation which backed Ashers in the so-called gay cake case – said other players have “taken pot shots” against Christians in the wake of the Folau case, but escaped any sort of punishment.
Acknowledging that the sport’s clubs and governing bodies have to have rules, he insisted that those rules must be applied to everyone equally.