Religion isn't a welcome dinner subject for most Australians. The country has grown increasingly secular, and in one recent poll a majority said religion did more harm than good.
Sports, though, is a different matter — it's a national obsession. So in the weeks since an evangelical Christian rugby star was fired over homophobic statements, Australians have been arguing at home, online and over the airwaves about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, political correctness and gay rights.
The rugby player, Israel Folau, was removed from the Australian national team in late May after he breached his employment contract by posting a message on Instagram telling gays, alcoholics and atheists that "hell awaits you." Folau later sued the organisation that governs rugby in Australia, and on Friday a mediation hearing ended without an agreement, meaning the case is now headed to court.
Folau kicked up a new furore a week and a half ago as he appealed online for the public to donate more than $2 million toward his legal fees. Folau, a millionaire, amassed around $760,000 before GoFundMe shut down his page, calling it a breach of its user terms. A Christian lobbying group then began its own fundraising drive and has raised more than $2 million.
If there is one way to drag Australians, who pride themselves on their comfortable, easygoing nature, into talking about divisive social issues, it is for those issues to intrude onto the sports field. And several recent cases have done just that.
A documentary about Adam Goodes, an indigenous Australian rules football player who retired in 2015 after enduring abuse from spectators, has revived a debate about racism, and online trolling directed at Tayla Harris, another football player, over a photo showing her raw athleticism forced Australians to confront sexism and misogyny.
And then there is the case of Folau. The rugby star, 30, a former Mormon who is now an evangelical Christian, has a history of making homophobic and transphobic comments online. Last year, he wrote on Instagram that God's plan for gay people was "HELL" unless they "repent of their sins." He was warned by Rugby Australia, the governing body, that broadcasting such views contravened its inclusion policy.
Earlier this year, he signed a new four-year contract with Rugby Australia worth $AU4 million ($4.1 million) that included clauses restricting his behaviour on social media. But that did not prevent him from putting up his "hell awaits you" post in April. After an investigation, Rugby Australia terminated his contract.
"When they signed Folau again, it didn't occur to anybody that he would do exactly the same thing," said Peter FitzSimons, a former national rugby player and now a columnist and author. "You couldn't believe that somebody would take a contract for 4 million dollars and do exactly the same thing as he had done last year, but he did."
To some in Australia, where the Christian foundation remains broad despite the increasing secularism, the debate over Folau's comments is a fight over religious freedom. Folau has defended his posts by saying he would not hide his faith to suit his employer, and his lawsuit accuses Rugby Australia of religious discrimination. Some who have contributed money to his cause have pointed to questions of freedom of speech, too.
The case has also highlighted cultural divides between Australian athletes of Pacific Islander descent and their teammates. Nearly half the players on the national rugby squad have family ties to the Pacific islands, and they largely share the evangelical religious beliefs of Folau, who was born in Australia and is of Tongan heritage.
"Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Island rugby players around the world because we share the same Christian beliefs," one player, Taniela Tupou, wrote on his Facebook page last month after Folau was fired.
If Folau's case goes to the High Court, the top court in Australia, it may come down to whether his contract placed an unreasonable burden on his right to practice his religion, said Gillian Triggs, a former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
But many Australians see the debate not as a matter of religious freedom but as a reflection of a conservative backlash over a referendum two years ago that paved the way to same-sex marriage.
"The haters and the homophobes have been waiting since the YES vote for a trigger to set off a 'religious freedoms' campaign as revenge," tweeted Kerryn Phelps, who was the first lesbian to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association and recently ran as an independent candidate in the federal election.
David Marr, an Australian columnist for The Guardian, echoed Phelps.
"So what are they fighting for? Free speech, but free speech of a particular kind that keeps gays in the firing line. As Australia succumbs to secular values on marriage and sex and family, that's getting harder and harder and the Christian mission more urgent," he wrote.
Triggs said the Folau case showed the need for Australia to enact a human rights charter that would make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, as racial discrimination now is.
"We are a deeply conservative and isolated country; we do not have the legislative structures that much of the democratic world has," she said. "For the most part, we've muddled along."
Aside from the question of whether Folau's behaviour has divided Australia, it has certainly wreaked havoc on the Australian national team, which is preparing for the Rugby World Cup in September in Japan without him.
One former teammate, Drew Mitchell, excoriated Folau over his fundraising appeal, saying on Twitter: "It's no longer about religion, it's about YOU and YOUR greed."
FitzSimons, the former national rugby player, said he saw a long-term impact on the game should Folau succeed in his lawsuit, which seeks a large award for damages.
"If he wins the case and takes 10 million dollars out of rugby, well there's only one place that can come from," he said, adding that "a lot of rugby people will be affected."
But there are also life-or-death stakes, he added. "The starting point for this whole debate," he said, "is vulnerable gay teens who take their lives at five times the rate of straight teenagers." If a public figure tells those teenagers there is something wrong with them, "it behooves the rest of us to say: 'Shut up,'" he said.
Written by: Jamie Tarabay and Isabella Kwai
Photographs by: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES