If you haven’t been following the ongoing controversy over the sacking of rugby star Israel Folau, you will have missed an extraordinary turn of events which led to over AUS$1 million being raised for his legal fund in a single day.
Folau is one of the best players in world rugby, but was sacked by his club and the Australian national team after posting a picture on Instagram summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, warning that “hell awaits” drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. He had attracted similar controversy on Instagram the previous year, and Rugby Australia (the sport’s governing body) said that it was left with “no other option” but to terminate his multi-million dollar contract.
Folau had sought to appeal Rugby Australia’s decision internally, but after significant details about the case were leaked from the tribunal deliberations, Folau abandoned the appeal on the basis that he was not being treated “fairly or lawfully”. He subsequently announced that he would be bringing an action in the national courts on the basis that his contract had been unlawfully terminated by Rugby Australia.
Late last week, Folau set up a crowdfunding appeal on the “GoFundMe” platform, asking for a whopping AUS$3 million to fund the litigation. The ask raised eyebrows, not least because Folau had earned a significant amount during his time as a rugby player, and many questioned whether the appeal was “more deserving” than other causes on the site. A petition that attracted almost 100,000 signatures called for GoFundMe to take down the page on the basis that Folau was a “homophobic bigot” who had knowingly broken his contract, and argued that it was against the crowdfunder’s terms and conditions to allow such page to exist.
Nevertheless, it appeared that many had great sympathy for Folau’s plight, and funds came in steadily over the weekend, totalling around AUS$760,000 by Monday. However in a stunning twist on that Monday morning, GoFundMe announced that they were pulling the page and would be issuing full refunds to anyone who had donated.
Commenting on the decision, GoFundMe’s Australian regional director stated that while the crowdfunding site welcomed appeals engaging in diverse civil debate, they would not tolerate “the promotion of discrimination or exclusion.” The statement went on to say that the organisation was “absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusively.”
In my view, GoFundMe’s decision is deeply problematic for three main reasons.
Firstly, it isn’t entirely clear how Folau’s page contravened the terms and conditions of the website. GoFundMe prohibit “campaigns we deem, at our sole discretion, to be in support of, or for the legal defence of alleged crimes associated with hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, terrorism or intolerance of any kind relating to…sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity…”
It is a stretch to say that this campaign was in support of intolerance relating to sexual orientation as in fact Folau is seeking to argue that he was discriminated against on the basis of his religious beliefs. However, the “at our sole discretion” caveat basically gives GoFundMe the right to pull any page if they so choose.
But that leads to my second concern, in that GoFundMe actually do not understand why Israel Folau is bringing the lawsuit. He certainly has an arguable case that Rugby Australia dealt with him unlawfully, as they opted for the harshest possible penalty in reliance on rather loose wording contained within the organisation’s code of conduct. Folau has said that he is bringing the action because he believes that “no Australian of any faith should be fired for practicing their religion”.
Surely it is in the wider public interest for the Australian courts to investigate and determine what protection the law affords to expressions of religious belief in these circumstances? The Ashers Bakery case here in the UK is a recent example of where the Supreme Court was required to weigh and judge similar sensitive and complex issues. However in pulling the fundraiser, GoFundMe seem to have taken the view that his case is hopeless, or perhaps that it shouldn’t have been brought in principle.
My third criticism is that the decision plays into the narrative that there is a particular intolerance against Folau and the beliefs he holds, as a quick look through other pages on GoFundMe reveals some surprisingly controversial pages that haven’t (but could have been) taken down. There is a $25 million fund to build Trump’s border wall in the US, a fund to pay the criminal fine of Paul Crowther for throwing a milkshake at Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, and a fund of over AUS$80,000 to pay for legal defence of “EggBoi” who infamously slapped an egg over the head of a controversial Australian politician.
GoFundMe has a track record of blocking fundraisers of individuals accused of intolerance against the LGBT community. It controversially pulled a fundraiser for florist in the United States who was pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union after declining to provide flowers for a same-sex ceremony. The message from GoFundMe seems to be that individuals who commit crimes against disliked politicians will have access to funds through their platform, but anyone accused of intolerance against the LGBT community will not.
However there was a yet another twist in the tale the day after GoFundMe pulled the page, as the Australian Christian Lobby set up a crowdfunding page on their website. This fundraiser brought in well over AUS$1 million in the first 24 hours, and the total raised currently sits at just under AUS$2 million.
Perhaps Folau should be thanking GoFundMe for the extra publicity, as many Australians who were originally sceptical about donating have been incensed by the way in which he has been treated. It is now certain that Folau will have his day in court, and that he will have sufficient funds to take the case all the way up to the highest appeal court in the country if necessary.
Laurence Wilkinson is Legal Counsel at ADF International. Hear him debate the sacking of Israel Folau on the latest episode of Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable?