Speaking in defence of equal rights for gay and lesbian people has often not been an easy endeavour. Participating in a BBC Northern Ireland radio programme in September 2011 in defence of a colleague’s right to have entered a civil partnership earlier that year brought hostile emails and letters. The fact that BBC had to telephone a cleric deep in the midlands of the Republic of Ireland showed how vulnerable sympathetic colleagues in Northern Ireland must have felt. Fundamentalists made quite clear what they believed would be the destiny of someone who held such views. Whilst emails were generally identifiable to a particular source, vile material sent through the post was anonymous.
The experience of being vilified for one’s views was one encountered during days as a curate when the saintly rector of the parish was subject to hostile newspaper advertisements and leafleting campaigns against him by the sectarian Free Presbyterian Church. To have aroused such hostility among bigots brought a certain sense of satisfaction. To be hated for speaking of love and tolerance seemed almost worthy of being among those counted as blessed in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
Being someone who has been on the receiving end of bigotry and abuse, it seems odd to feel that the weekend sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia, and today’s warning from English club Saracens to Billy Vunipola today about his future comments on the matter, are wrong decisions.
Folau’s comments were not specifically homophobic, they were against various groups condemned in Christian Scripture, of whom homosexuals were but one. Vunipola was clear in stating his belief that this was what he read in the Bible and that Folau should not have suffered for his beliefs. Reciting verses of Scripture may be fundamentalist, it may be far removed from popular opinion, but it has an integrity which should be tolerated in a free society.
Should Rugby Australia or the Rugby Football Union in England investigate the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, or the teachings of Islam, about the fate that awaits those criticised by Folau, they might find that his views had a wider currency than imagined. Would there be a ban on those who upheld conservative Roman Catholic or conservative Muslim views? Would there not have been an outcry if a Catholic were banned for stating Catholic beliefs?
Neither Folau nor Vunipola spoke to incite hatred, they stated beliefs. The banning of Folau will do more harm than good to the cause of tolerance.