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The latest “Folau moment” shows what’s needed from a real discrimination bill

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Netball star Samantha Wallace-Joseph. Screenshot: YouTube/NSWSwiftsTV
Netball star Samantha Wallace-Joseph. Screenshot: YouTube/NSWSwiftsTV

If you want to know the kinds of things that are at stake in the current debate about a federal religious discrimination bill, you only have to look to last week and the Folau-esque furore that surrounded NSW Swifts netball player, Samantha Wallace-Joseph.

For those who didn’t see the virtue-signalling from public figures here and abroad, 31 March was not only Easter Sunday; it was also Transgender Day of Visibility, which is apparently celebrated on the last day of March each year.

I became aware of the day because of a somewhat bizarre press release, the top of which featured an Easter Bunny seated on the White House lawn, the bottom a “presidential proclamation” of the Transgender Day of Visibility.

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A sensible and sensitive politician who noticed the clash with Easter Sunday this year might have decided to skip the recognition of the Transgender Day of Visibility and saved their greetings for the next worldwide celebration of some other LGBT-themed event, such as next month’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Unfortunately, we do not have many sensible or sensitive politicians left.

On Easter Sunday, everyone from US President Joe Biden to Australia’s Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong decided to publicly salute the trans community, either ignorant of or indifferent to the way this might look to Christians who might not be aware that this is an annual event and instead take this as a deliberate strike on their greatest celebration.

Enter 30-year-old Samantha Wallace-Joseph. Wallace-Joseph was recruited by the NSW Swifts to move to Australia in 2017 and start playing netball for them. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is the first ever person from that country to play elite netball in Australia. She’s also a Christian who found herself in the middle of a social media storm this week.

Wallace-Joseph reposted the Biden proclamation on her Instagram story with the caption: “The disrespect is crazy. Don’t play with God.”

Those eight words, not condemning anyone to hell or even mentioning anything about those who identify as transgender, nonetheless plunged Wallace-Joseph into a Folau-esque moment.

The NSW Swifts released a statement, saying Wallace-Joseph’s post “caused understandable hurt to members of the transgender community.” The club was careful to note that it did not share Wallace-Joseph’s views, and said: “Many members of our family, both directly within the club and in the stands, identify as part of the LGBTIQA+ community. The NSW Swifts will always be their allies.”

Wallace-Joseph initially doubled-down, posting a second time: “My opinion still stands.” But she was then summoned to a meeting by the club and, with them, issued a joint apology for the hurt she caused. ““I did not wish to cause any offence to members of the transgender community, and it is clear that I have and for that, I am sorry,” she wrote.

While the contents of Wallace-Joseph’s meeting with the club were not publicised, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that her apology was given to avoid further sanctions.

This is what is at stake in the current debate over the religious discrimination bill proposed by the federal government.  While the bill is still being kept confidential, it is clear from public comments and private briefings that nothing in the bill would protect Wallace-Joseph in these circumstances.

Even if the bill being proposed by the Albanese government had been passed into law, the NSW Swifts could still have pulled Wallace-Joseph up and told her that her comments would not be allowed by the club because their values of inclusiveness and tolerance did not extend to her Christian views, and there would not have been a thing she could have done about it.

Like Israel Folau before her, she would have had three options: apologise and keep your job, don’t apologise and lose your job, or become a test case and have your sporting achievements overshadowed by litigation. None of these three options are appealing or just, and so we are left asking what the point of a religious discrimination bill is at all if it’s not going to protect faith-based speech—even when it is expressed as mildly as Wallace-Joseph did in her post.

Without having read the bill, if it doesn’t prevent the NSW Swifts from discriminating against Wallace-Joseph, then it’s likely not worth the paper it’s printed on.

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