(CNSNews.com) – A Christian advocacy group has come to the aid of an Australian rugby star who lost his multi-million dollar contract after sharing online his religious views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) launched an online donation page this week to help raise funds for Israel Folau’s legal battle, after the crowdfunding website GoFundMe shut him down.
By Thursday, the ACL said it had raised more than two million Australian dollars (almost $1.4 million U.S.) from more than 20,000 donors in just two days.
The saga of Folau, a Pentecostal Christian, has generated debate in his home country and further afield, with both sides claiming the moral high ground.
Folau’s supporters say he’s being demonized for sharing his personal, biblically-based beliefs that challenge today’s politically correct dogmas. They oppose Rugby Australia’s decision to terminate his four-year contract to play both for a major club and the Australian national team, potentially ending the 30-year-old’s professional sporting career.
Folau’s detractors say he has used his social media presence to spread hate and intolerance, with posts like one saying that hell awaits homosexuals, unless they “turn from their sins and turn to God.”
He stoked particular controversy with an Instagram post in April that said, “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.” Three verses from the New Testament followed.
Alongside those words, Folau posted an image that said hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists [and] idolaters,” unless they repent.
Last month Folau was found guilty of breaching Rugby Australia code of conduct, and after the rugby governing body ended his contract, he lodged an appeal with the country’s industrial relations tribunal, citing legislation making it illegal to terminate employment on the basis of religion.
Late last week he launched a GoFundMe campaign in a bid to raise three million Australian dollars ($2.09 million) to finance his legal action, saying that he had “the fight of my life on my hands” and that he and his wife Maria had already spent more than 100,000 Australian dollars (about $70,000) on the case.
“Even if I win [in the labor tribunal], Rugby Australia can appeal,” he said. “There is every chance that a prominent test case like this could take years and eventually end up in the High Court of Australia.”
Within days, however, GoFundMe said it was closing Folau’s fundraising campaign for violating its terms of service, and that is would refund the more than half a million dollars it had raised to date.
“As a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity,” GoFundMe Australia spokeswoman Nicola Britton told media outlets earlier this week, adding that the company does “not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion.”
That’s when the ACL stepped in, announcing it was donating 100,000 Australian dollars to Folau’s legal defense and launching a fundraising page on its website on his behalf.
“There is an outpouring of support for Israel Folau from the Australian community, who see Israel’s case as their case,” said ACL managing director, Martyn Iles. “They feel the pinch of political correctness, and the erosion of their basic freedoms.”
‘A great movement of quiet Australians have found their voice’
Iles said in a statement that GoFundMe’s decision had only confirmed the concerns of Folau’s supporters that their freedoms were under attack.
“Israel’s case is our case if we want to live free and embrace our beliefs without fear of being marginalized or discriminated against.”
Folau told his 366,000 Instagram followers in a post Wednesday he was humbled by those who have supported him.
“To those who have criticized me, I bear no ill will towards you. You have every right to express your own beliefs and opinions,” he added.
“GoFundMe’s decision to shut down my campaign proves the importance of my case; whether you share my faith or believe in my right to express it, attempts to sanction what we believe is a threat to all Australians.”
In an update on Thursday, the ACL reported that it was putting the fundraising on hold, as Folau “has raised enough money for now” – more than two million Australian dollars in two days.
“We are hitting the pause button,” it said. “But if the case drags on and Israel needs more support, we will reopen this campaign. For now, we are thrilled that Izzy is not only supported, but a great movement of quiet Australians have found their voice. This cannot be ignored.”
Folau’s contract termination came just months before the kickoff in Japan of the top competition in global rugby, the Rugby World Cup. Folau is tied in third place for the highest number of tries scored in Australian international rugby history.
Maria Folau is also a professional sportswoman, a member of the New Zealand national netball team. She has also come under fire for reposting her husband’s online appeal for donations via the now-shutdown GoFundMe drive, and some critics are urging her sport’s governing body to discipline her as well.