SYDNEY – Fallen star Israel Folau urged Rugby Australia to apologise for sacking him over homophobic comments as the two sides appeared deeply divided heading into last-ditch conciliation talks Friday.
Rugby Australia also denied Folau's claim that he was offered money to remove his anti-gay post from social media, as the body looked set for a long and costly legal battle with its former poster boy.
Folau, a devout Christian and Super Rugby's record try-scorer, was fired in May for breaching Rugby Australia's code of conduct after posting that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.
The fullback has taken his case to Australia's Fair Work Commission, asserting that he simply posted sentiments from the Bible and was unfairly dismissed.
However, Rugby Australia insist his sacking was purely contractual, saying Folau had agreed not to disparage anyone over their sexuality following a similar controversy last year.
The dispute has polarised Australia, with many outraged over Folau's comments but others, including the Christian lobby, defending his right to free speech.
The Fair Work Commission ordered the two sides to a closed-doors mediation hearing Friday, in a bid to avoid a court battle, but the split shows little sign of narrowing.
In a television interview on Thursday evening, Folau claimed Rugby Australia offered him money to take down the offensive post, but said “I couldn't live with that”.
The governing body issued statement calling the allegation “completely false”.
Australian media suggested there was little chance of a settlement, with the case expected to head to the Federal Court and potentially dragging on for years.
'Free to express beliefs'
Folau is reportedly seeking Aus$10 million (US$7 million), including for lost sponsorship and marketing opportunities, a sum that reports say could be ruinous for Rugby Australia.
Folau released a video on his website Friday demanding an apology from Rugby Australia and an admission that his sacking was wrong.
“Hopefully Rugby Australia will accept that my termination was unlawful and we can reach an agreement about how they can fix that mistake,” the 30-year-old said.
“First and foremost, I am hoping for an apology from Rugby Australia and an acknowledgement that even if they disagree with my views, that I should be free to peacefully express my religious beliefs without fear of retribution or exclusion.”
Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle set out the organisation's stance in an email to the rugby community, saying it had “acted with complete professionalism and integrity at all times through the process”.
“This is an employment matter and does not concern his religious beliefs or his ability to express them freely,” she said.
Folau launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay his legal fees, but it was shut down after raising more than Aus$700,000, with the GoFundMe site saying it would not “tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion” and that the donations would be refunded.
In response, the Australian Christian Lobby launched a new fund and raised more than Aus$2 million in two days before pausing the appeal Thursday, saying it had enough money “for now”.