The days when airline chiefs ran airlines and rugby players played rugby and nobody cared too much about their personal opinions vanished with the advent of social media and corporate sponsorship – so there was much interest when Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce spoke out on the controversy surrounding rugby star Israel Folau.

Qantas is involved because the airline is a major sponsor of Rugby Australia, alongside Asics and Land Rover.

Joyce said he was “quite happy” with Rugby Australia’s decision to take action against Folau’s controversial social media post, which said that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists [and] idolators”.

Folau’s post added: “Repent. Only Jesus saves.” It was accompanied by quotes from biblical scripture.

Joyce told the Australian Financial Review: “We don’t sponsor something to get involved in controversy. That’s not part of the deal. We expect our partners to take the appropriate action.”

Joyce said it was not just an issue for Qantas, “it’s an issue for every potential sponsor for Rugby Australia, ever. They have to manage it … and shame on you if it happens a second time. That’s the way we approach it in the aviation industry, and we expect these organisations to be the same.”

Joyce is an openly gay man, who famously donated AUD 1 million of his own money to the ‘Yes’ campaign on marriage equality, but the Folau issue has more to do with the potential effect on Qantas. Asics has also dumped Folau as an ambassador, saying his views didn’t align with the sportswear company. Land Rover has reportedly taken away a car it had issued to the rugby star.

Qantas had stated earlier that it found Folau’s comments “really disappointing and clearly don’t reflect the spirit of inclusion and diversity that we support”.

The issue pits vilification against religious freedom and freedom of expression. Drunks and fornicators may also have reason to feel slighted.

Israel Folau, complete with Qantas logo

The controversy surfaced again at the weekend when nine prominent Christians signed a letter about religious freedom sent to Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten.

The letter was signed by Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Uniting and Apostolic leaders, as well as a number of religious school leaders.

ABC News quoted one of the signatories, Reverend Dr Hedley Fihaki, national chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations of the Uniting Church, saying they were worried Folau’s case could set “a dangerous precedent”.

“Scripture is the book the whole church is based on, so if we are not free to teach from that, not just in the private but particularly in the public domain, it is a dangerous precedent,” Fihaki told the ABC.

Written by Peter Needham