Victorian Catholics want churches open

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews addresses the media during a press conference in Melbourne, Friday, September 25, 2020. The government has resisted opening churches in line with restaurants in regional areas including in places which have not seen a single case of COVID-19. PHOTO: AAP Image, James Ross

Lay-driven petition passes 10,000 signatures

Victoria’s people of faithave asked Premier Daniel Andrews to end discrimination against them in the state’s plan for reopening after months of lockdown.

A petition launched by Melbourne CatholicEwa Chlipala and Dr Joanna Waloszek with assistance from Father Marcus Goulding asks for places of worship to be treated equally to cafes and restaurants in Step 3 of the state’s roadmap for reopening.

Currently
 hospitality venues may seat up to 20 people indoors and 50 people outdoors while religious gatherings are limited to 10 people outdoors or indoor services for one household.

The 
grassroots online petition passed 10,000 signatures in two weeks and was sent to the Premier on 13 October. It was also acknowledged in both houses of parliament by lower house MP Brad Rowswell and upper house MP Matt Bach according to Fr Goulding, an assistant priest in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs and the Secretary of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy.

It follows last month’s letter sent to Premier Andrews by the 
state’s Catholic bishops seeking an explanation for the discrepancy in the Step 3 pandemic restrictions.

Dr 
Waloszek, a researcher in psychology at the Swinbourne University of Technology, said that sacred buildings, rites, and rituals can and should also be allowed to operate in a COVID-safe way.

The inside of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Under current restrictions in the city five people plus the minister can worship outdoors. Restrictions are slightly eased in the regional areas, but not equally with pubs, clubs and restaurants.

“For people of faith, attending their place of worship is essential to their wellbeing,” Dr Waloszek said. “It infuses hope and optimism and, for many people, is a key source of strength in difficult circumstances. The suffering of many Victorians is being compounded by inequitable restrictions on places of worship.”

Mrs 
Chlipala, who works in risk management in the hospital and aged care sector, said the Government needs to be fair across all sectors. “We are hopeful that the Premier will take the concerns of Victoria’s faith community into account when restrictions are reviewed next Sunday,” she said.

Fr Gouldingan assistant priest in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs and the Secretary of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, told The Catholic Weekly he was “very happy” to assist the lay-driven petition. “This is really the laity making their voice heard, saying want to be able to access our churches in safe way,” he said.

The petition is supported by a variety of faith groups including the Islamic Council of Victoria, Hindu Council of Australia, the Brahma Kumaris, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Knights of the Southern Cross, Family Voice Australia, Australian Confraternity of Catholic ClergyCatholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga WaggaAustralian Catholic Medical Association and The Catholic Weekly.

It comes amid growing concerns about the effect of the pandemic restrictions on mental health and an appeal to world leaders from the World Health Organisation to stop using lockdowns as a primary coronavirus control method. 

“We are hopeful that the Premier will take the concerns of Victoria’s faith community into account when restrictions are reviewed next Sunday.”

Nearly 300 Victorian church pastors and leaders separately wrote an open letter on 8 October urging Premier Andrews to allow churches to open for indoor worship.

Although daily new COVID-19 cases in Victoria are at the lowest in months, the state entered its 11th consecutive week of severe restrictions in Melbourne since the beginning of its second wave of the pandemic in August.

Currently, third step restrictions apply throughout regional Victoria while second step restrictions are in place in metropolitan Melbourne. Last week Premier Andrews also extended the state of emergency and state of disaster until 8 November.

The 2016 national census indicates that approximately 60 percent of Victorians identify as religious,” the petition reads. There is no logical reason for this discrepancy.

People of faith are able to attend a service in a place of worship whilst wearing a face mask; physical distancing is not a challenge in what are often very large venues; services are time-limited and rigorous infection-control measures are able to be implemented.

A place of worship can and should be accessible in a COVID-safe way. Religious organisations should be afforded the same opportunity to open for indoor worship with density quotients equivalent to those seen in other parts of the community such as hospitality. 

We were afforded the opportunity as we emerged from the first lockdown; we deserve to be afforded the same opportunity again as we emerge from the second lockdown.

The Australian Christian Lobby also called on the Victorian government to remove pandemic 
restrictions.

The church leaders’ concerns further highlight the negative impacts raised for months by many Victorian health professionals, warning the government against a prolonged and strict lockdown,” it said.

Sign the petition at www.equalityforfaith.com.au 

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