Sydney churches open – but why did it take so long?

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While it is good that the NSW Government has admitted its mistake in not treating churches and other places of worship fairly the reality is that its original decision to restrict the number of worshippers was unfairly discriminatory and wrong.

Better late than never

It’s only right and proper that Premier Gladys Berejiklian changed her mind at the 11th hour and is now allowing churches and other places of worship to have up to 50 worshippers at any one time. The great shame is the NSW Premier’s change of heart only comes after the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney under Archbishop Fisher organised a campaign opposing Berejiklian’s original decision.

The refusal to allow up to 50 worshipers to attend a church service while pubs and restaurants had their restrictions lifted from 10 to 50 denied logic and common sense.

As argued by Archbishop Fisher “We understand that the shutdown was necessary to flatten the curve, but it came at a cost – not only to the economy, but also to the spiritual and mental health of our people… I am at a loss to explain to Catholics in Sydney why our reasonable requests to the government are not being granted”.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian changed her mind at the 11th hour and is now allowing churches and other places of worship to have up to 50 worshippers at any one time

Spurious reasoning

The Premier’s justification based on overseas experience where the covid-19 virus spread among some congregations was also unjustified and spurious. Compared to overseas countries such has been our success in minimising the virus’ spread that the risk of infection is minimal.

According to the figures available on May 25, in Australia there were 7,112 cases of infection with 102 deaths. In the United Kingdom, there were 259,559 infected, with 36,793 deaths. The situation is even more dire in the United States, with 1,685,336 infections and 99,286 deaths.

Based on infections and deaths per million, Australia still has the lowest infection and mortality rates, sitting at 279 per million and four per million respectively. In the UK 3,826 per million were infected and the mortality rate was 542 per million.

Discrimination was obvious

The argument to treat churches fairly is strengthened as church authorities have promised to ensure sanitisation and social distancing protocols are adhered to. It’s also the case that many church buildings, compared to most restaurants and pubs, have ample space to ensure worshippers do not congregate.

Based on infections and deaths per million, Australia still has the lowest infection and mortality rates

That the NSW government unfairly discriminated against churches and those with a religious conviction is even more obvious when looking at the flexibility and freedom granted to museums, art galleries and libraries.

The government’s official webpage states that such public spaces beginning June 1st can open as long as they conform to covid-19 guidelines including “limiting the number of guests to allow for 4 square metres per person”. As to why churches originally were not given the same freedom beggars belief.

Sydney’s petition completely understandable

Given such unfair discrimination it’s understandable why the Sydney Archdiocese launched a petition arguing “Contrary to what has been said throughout this pandemic, we do not consider church attendance to be non-essential; indeed, nothing is more essential than the practice of our faith. Premier, Catholics are not asking for special treatment, we are asking for equal treatment”.

While not suggesting the NSW Premier harboured any ill will towards religion or the Catholic Church in particular her government’s refusal to acknowledge and respect people’s spiritual needs while pandering to the appetites of those yearning for a drink and a meal illustrates how secular Australian society has become and how material needs dominate.

The spectre of political correctness

In an increasingly post-Christian age it’s also true governments are often more willing to protect minority rights involving race, ethnicity and gender compared to religious freedom which is either ignored or treated as secondary to other rights.

The NSW government’s current anti-discrimination act provides a perfect illustration. While the act currently deals with unfair discrimination in a range of areas it fails to include religious beliefs whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu or any of the other religious faiths.

One Nation’s Mark Latham

Religion as a punching bag

As argued by One Nation’s Mark Latham when recently moving in the NSW Legislative Council an amendment to the bill to include religious freedom “In this era of bitterly divided political debate, religion has become a punching bag for some. Religious discrimination is real, it is unacceptable and it needs to be outlawed”. Latham goes on to ask “Why then has the NSW Government been so slow to protect people of religious faith from discrimination?”.

While it is good that the NSW Government has admitted its mistake in not treating churches and other places of worship fairly the reality is that its original decision to restrict the number of worshippers was unfairly discriminatory and wrong.  One suspects the only reason the Premier changed her mind was because of the petition and public campaign organised by the Catholic Church’s Sydney Archdiocese.  The price of religious freedom is eternal vigilance.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of a Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide available at kevindonnelly.com.au

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