Christian rugby player committed 'high level breach' of player conduct, panel finds

Israel Folau is one of the stars of Wallaby rugbyReuters

Australian rugby player Israel Folau is waiting to hear what punishment awaits him after a three-person panel concluded he committed a "high level" breach of player conduct over a controversial post about gay people. 

Folau was stood down by Rugby Australia last month after he posted an image to Instagram with text saying that "hell awaits" homosexuals among others unless they repent. 

The hearing was held after Folau, a Christian, challenged the action taken against him by Rugby Australia.  The hearing ran into a third day on Tuesday after reaching a stalemate.

The 30-year-old, who plays for the Wallabies, has divided opinion in the rugby world but also among Christians. 

Writing about the row over Folau's post, Brian Houston, senior pastor of the Australian-based Hillsong Church, suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald that the star player's comments had been "harsh". 

"In 40 years of telling people about the good news of Jesus, I have seen that the 'turn or burn', approach to proclaiming the message of Christianity alienates people. Scaring people doesn't draw them into the love of Jesus," he said.  

He added, "The world doesn't need more judgmental Christians."

The row over Folau's social media post spread far beyond Australia when English rugby player Billy Vunipola defended him. 

Vunipola was summoned by the Rugby Football Union after writing on his Instagram in defence of Folau's post: "Man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no?"

The comments were deemed homophobic and he was given a warning. 

Pete Nicholas, a former rugby player and trustee of Christians in Sport, defended both Folau and Vunipola, saying that they were victims of Western ideological colonialism and that players should be allowed to discuss their values openly.

"Folau and Vunipola's posts have received many likes from those from South Pacific Island heritage who are feeling the New Colonial steamroller coming their way," he said.

"But the momentum of the Western consensus is now so strong that few have noticed this worrying dynamic and its ugly historical precedents. Few have noticed the irony of the intolerance of the culture of 'tolerance'." 

Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel at ADF International, said that the actions against Folau sent a "chilling message" to other players who share his views. 

"Isreal Folau could certainly have expressed his views in a more sensitive manner, but to be fired for expressing them at all would, in my view, be an absolutely travesty for freedom of expression in sport," he wrote in the Spectator. 

"To suggest that the removal of Folau is in the pursuit of 'tolerance and respect' makes a mockery of the terms, and as some of Folau's teammates have already noted, it sends out a chilling message to all those who share his views.

"If Rugby Australia's management genuinely wants the sport to be 'inclusive for all', it needs to start by including players that it disagrees with."

Folau's own family has leapt to his defence in light of the furore.  

His father, Eni Folau, a church pastor, told the 7News network on Monday: "Israel does not do any wrong at all, all the words he posted doesn't come from him, it comes from the Bible." 

His cousin, Josiah Folau, said: "The important thing for us is not so much the outcome, but how the glory of God is revealed throughout this situation and that his truth is preached to the whole world."