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Australian tennis legend receives top public service honor despite homophobic remarks

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Morgan Hancock/Getty ImagesBy BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — For decades, Margaret Court was the pride of Australia.

In her 17 years on the professional tennis circuit, the now 78-year-old notched up a record 24 singles Grand Slam titles, making her the most successful female tennis player in Australian history.

But Court’s legacy has been profoundly tarnished by a slew of homophobic comments in recent years.

Court — now a Christian pastor — is a vocal critic of transgender athletes and once called the teaching of LGBTQ content in schools the work “of the devil.”

Court, who collected her record haul of grand slam wins between 1961 and 1975, wrote an open letter in 2017 saying she would boycott airline Qantas over its support over same-sex marriage. That same year she said tennis was “full of lesbians.”

It is these comments over the years that lost her respect among the Australian public and led to the deluge of anger that broke out after it was leaked that Court would be awarded with the highest possible public service honor, the Companion of the Order of Australia.

Court had already been recognized with an Order of the British Empire honor in 1967 and another Australian service honor in 2007 and she has now received the top accolade on Tuesday, Australia Day, in recognition of her “outstanding achievement and service”.

However, rights groups and the country’s political opposition have voiced their outrage at the expected appointment and it has even prompted a doctor in Canberra to hand back her own award in protest.

Dr. Clara Tuck Meng Soo, a trans woman, says the decision to hand Court Australia’s most prestigious honor “promotes discrimination” to LGBTQ people. Meanwhile, Australian journalist Kerry O’Brien has rejected the honor he was due to receive on Tuesday because of the “deeply insensitive and divisive decision.”

Victorian state leader Premier Daniel Andrews said, “I don’t believe that she has views that accord with the vast majority of people across our nation that see people, particularly from the LGBTQ community, as equal and deserving of dignity, respect and safety.”

Without naming names, Andrews also took to Twitter to say he doesn’t “want to give this person’s disgraceful, bigoted views any oxygen.”

His comments come as Victoria gets set to host the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, where the main arena is named after Court.

Other tennis stars have called for her name to be stripped from the venue — including John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova — who said it should be replaced with that of Indigenous champion, Evonne Goolagong.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to wade into the debate, saying: “It is an announcement that will be announced on that day. It is a system that recognizes the full spectrum of individuals across this country.”

Speaking to local reporters on Friday, Court insisted she had been unfairly bullied by her critics.

Said Court: “Always remember I’m a minister of the gospel and have been for the last 30 years, I always say what the Bible says.”

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