A group of conservative MPs are demanding the Australian government does more to protect religious expression, in the wake of the Attorney General, Christian Porter, beginning an exploratory process ahead of the government’s proposed religious discrimination bill, set to be introduced later this year.

Porter has suggested that the plan is to establish a “powerful avenue” to challenge unfair dismissal.

Debate has arisen between those who wish to prevent discrimination, and more radical sectors of the parliament, with calls for an “offensive” rather “defensive” response, expressly protecting the rights of religious people like Folau to express their beliefs.

In riposte, LGBT rights activists, such as Equality Australia, argue that this must be matched by corresponding legislation to combat hate speech, and express their concern that any religious freedom bill could protect those who make homophobic and hateful statements.

One of those agitating for such a bill, The Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, told The Guardian, “if you want to blame someone for this, blame Rugby Australia – they opened the can of worms and now the worms are all over the place and somehow we have to stick the worms back in the can.”

“Rugby Australia saying that someone may take offence about another person’s view on who goes to heaven or hell would say that they … know there is a heaven and hell and they have got knowledge of how to get to heaven or hell, and I would have thought that would be a little outside their pay grade.”

The absolute lack of understanding demonstrated by Joyce is astounding. Surely, if anyone, it was Folau who opened the ‘can of worms’, by making repeated public statements?

He has previously stated, “You’ve got people who are a pain in the arse and they’re in every office, but we can’t just go around sacking them because they’re annoying,” suggesting a failure to equate homophobia with causing anything but annoyance. Homophobia is not annoying but hateful, and Joyce is clearly incapable of grasping this.

Furthermore, to suggest Folau’s actions are comparable to an irritating individual in an office environment is laughable. He has hundreds of thousands of people following him on social media, and he did not make an underhand comment but a series of public statements that breached his contract.

For Australia, the Folau case has been the flint that has sparked a fiery debate about religion, free speech and discrimination, exposing deep divides throughout the country. Rather than creating these divisions, it has simply revealed the fault lines that run through Australian society.

Debate, however, is usually positive, and hopefully in the process of airing these opposing opinions some sort of compromise and understanding can be built. At the moment though, that seems a distant prospect.

Written by Joe Ronan