Please explain: Victorian bishops question Premier over different rules

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews addresses the media during a press conference in Melbourne, Friday, September 25, 2020. Victoria has recorded 14 new cases of coronavirus and 8 deaths in the past 24 hours. Photo: AAP Image, James Ross

Victoria’s bishops have sent Premier Daniel Andrews a pointed letter asking him to explain why different rules apply to gatherings in lockdown Victoria, with churches and worship centres seemingly being discriminated against compared to pubs, clubs and restaurants.

The letter, sent to premier Andrews on Friday afternoon, was made public later the same day.

It was signed by Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Bishop Paul Bird CSsR of Ballarat, Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst and Fr Peter Slater, the Diocesan Administrator of Sale.

“Serious concerns”

The diocesan leaders thanked Premier Andrews for his leadership throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as well as government and health officials but raised “serious concerns” from regional and metropolitan Victorians of faith “about the unfairness and inconsistency in the numbers allowed for religious gatherings by comparison with other sectors” such as bars and restaurants.

“We are being asked what the reason is for this dramatic difference, and we are unable to provide an answer, even after several meetings with [the Department of Health and Human Services] in which we have sought explanations,” they wrote.

Rules fail the ‘pub test’

“In the most simple of measures, the current restrictions in regional Victoria literally fail the ‘pub test’: if people of faith can gather in a restaurant or bar catering for a particular number of patrons (and remove their face covering), they ought to be able to put on their mask, cross the road and worship in their faith community with the same numbers, provided equivalent COVID-safe practices are in place,” they wrote.

“We ask that this disparity be rectified urgently and that the principle of fairness be applied for each subsequent step on the roadmap to reopening.

Churches conscientious

“Catholic communities have shown their commitment to acting responsibly and cooperatively throughout the pandemic, and they will be greatly encouraged in this if they can see that people of faith are being given the same consideration as other sectors of the community,” they wrote.

The Catholic dioceses of Victoria had shown themselves to be resilient, well-managed and safe throughout the extensive lockdown, they pointed out, “carefully communicating each set of restrictions and ensuring their implementation, even when this caused much hardship.”

Dismay

Earlier in the week Catholics across the state expressed dismay when the Premier said at a press briefing that he would not budge on the different treatment handed out to churches as opposed to commercial social gathering venues such as bars and restaurants. Churches are limited to a ten-person only gathering rule, while bars and restaurants are allowed 20 indoors and 50 outdoors.

At the briefing on Monday 21 September Premier Andrews said there was a “very simple” reason for the severe restrictions on churches.

“Restaurants, cafes, bars are licensed, they are regulated,” he told media.

Churches are … just different

“They have a degree of formality around them that is vastly different. … I think you also appreciate the notion of Victorian police or an authorised officer going in to a religious service and essentially interrupting that service to do a headcount

“They’re just different,” he said.

However, Bishop Shane Mackinlay told The Catholic Weekly he was “surprised and disappointed by the significant discrepancy between numbers permitted for religious gatherings and those permitted for hospitality venues.

Discrepancies in government policy

“Especially as religious gatherings involve closely controlled activities, there has been rigorous compliance with all previous restrictions and hygiene requirements, and face coverings are worn, which is not the case once people are sitting in hospitality venues,” he added.

He said Catholic communities understood the pressures facing government and health authorities in addressing the pandemic.

“However, there is no reason for religious gatherings to continue facing restrictions that are more burdensome than those imposed on other gatherings in comparable venues.”

‘We’re not an afterthought’

Archbishop Peter Comensoli said it was essential the Victorian government “not treat faith communities as an afterthought to the opening up of other sectors.”

“If pubs and restaurants can open, then places of worship should be open under similar conditions and numbers,” the archbishop wrote in a pastoral letter.

“Our churches are locations for communities of care and essential services and must be treated fairly and reasonably.”

He said the deprivation in sacramental life had “been a profound loss” for Catholics.

the deprivation in sacramental life had “been a profound loss” for Catholics

“As well as all the other sufferings of the pandemic, the sense of estrangement from the eucharist has been a particular struggle,” he added.

Father Marcus Goulding, an assistant priest in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs and the Secretary of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, blasted the Victorian government for unjustly discriminating against churches in its ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown.

‘Egregious affront’ to those of faith

The continuing severe restrictions on churches had nothing to do with “the best scientific health advice and is an egregious affront to people of faith,” he said.

“I will not be silent about the spiritual, emotional and psychological anguish being inflicted upon us and that I am seeing my people suffer firsthand.

Worship not an obstacle to recovery

The President of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga, Jane Munro, said she was “very surprised the Premier viewed Christian worship as an obstacle to recovery “since the Christian community has complied with all the regulations to the letter of the law.

“One of humanity’s deepest needs is for community,” she said.

“Our churches provide that need in a loving and caring manner, which helps overcome the current fear engendered in everyone by the virus.”

Related