Churches fear vaccine mandates could lead to two-tiered society

Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli is lobbying the state government to allow unvaccinated people to worship in person when the state reopens, warning that a double-dose COVID-19 vaccine requirement in exchange for certain freedoms could lead to a two-class society.

© Luis Ascui

Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli delivers the Easter Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on Sunday 4 April 2021. Photo Luis Ascui

With Victoria expected to emerge from lockdown within weeks, religious groups have called on the government to allow them to open up to their entire communities amid growing fears they will be forced to shut out those who have refused to be vaccinated.

Under the government’s reopening strategy, religious services of up to 50 people will be allowed outdoors with social-distancing requirements, once 70 per cent of Victorians over 16 are fully vaccinated. When 80 per cent of eligible Victorians have had both doses, weddings, funerals, and religious services will return for 150 fully vaccinated people indoors and 500 outdoors.

© Eddie Jim People gathered at a synagogue in Ripponlea. 7 September 2021. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim. PPXELATED FACES OF CHILDREN THE AGE NEWS People are seen exiting a Ripponlea synagogue, where up to 100 worshippers were believed to be marking Jewish New Year in what appears to be a breach of COVID-19 restrictions. The Age was told members of the Orthodox Jewish congregation entered the synagogue about 5am on Tuesday and refused to leave until nightfall. 7 September 2021. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim.

However, Archbishop Comensoli told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that while Catholics were being strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the notion of a vaccine passport system – in which church services or events are offered only to those who can prove they are fully inoculated against COVID-19 – could risk creating social division.

“It would be a tragedy if two classes of citizens, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, were to emerge and be entrenched as we look towards a COVID-normal goal,” he said.

“Lockdown has affected Victorians deeply, no less for the thousands of people of faith who have not been able to attend worship or receive the sacraments of the church … We believe we can achieve ways that allow both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to worship in person safely and are working with other faith leaders to bring those proposals to the table.”

© Wayne Taylor Police respond to protests by construction workers at the Shrine of Remembrance today. Picture by Wayne Taylor 22nd September 2021

The Catholic Church is among several faith-based groups that have called for greater clarity from the Health Department about how the government’s road map rules will work once Victoria reaches its 80 per cent double-dose vaccination target.

So too has the Islamic Council of Victoria, whose president, Adel Salman, said: “Only vaccinated people should attend the mosque to worship. However – and this is the big however – mosques will not police it, and will not enforce it, and will not turn people away.

“The onus is on the individual to do the right thing by themselves and their community,” he said.

Jewish Community Council of Victoria president Daniel Aghion said the council was in favour of whatever aided the opening up of the community.

“If that means those who gather would need to be vaccinated, or would need to show proof of vaccination, we’d be all in favour of it,” he said.


Video: NSW vaccine mandate for aged care workers in effect (Sky News Australia)

COVID-19 restrictions have been contentious in parts of the Jewish community. There was a tense stand-off this month between worshippers and police at a Ripponlea synagogue after members of the ultra-Orthodox community gathered illegally to mark Jewish New Year.

Debate over vaccine mandates intensified this week amid protests involving workers, right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists at landmarks such as the West Gate Bridge and the Shrine over a mandate for the construction industry and shutdown of the sector.

The government said the shutdown was due to the high number of COVID-19 cases connected to the industry and low rates of compliance with restrictions. Directions issued by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton now require all workers to have at least one dose of the vaccine before they can return to work on October 5.

This week the government also announced that school staff and early childcare workers would be required to be vaccinated, bringing them in line with the aged care and healthcare sectors.

The imposition of mandatory vaccinations is expected to grow as Victoria emerges from lockdown.

Under the road map announced by Premier Daniel Andrews last Sunday, restrictions will remain in place until at least 70 per cent of Victorians over 16 have had two jabs – a target expected to be reached around October 26. Once this is achieved, Victorians will enjoy small gains such as the travel bubble around homes expanding to 25 kilometres, a staggered return to on-site learning and up to 10 fully vaccinated people allowed to meet outdoors.

When 80 per cent of eligible Victorians are fully vaccinated, people will be able to shop, go to the pub and attend events as they did previously – provided they are double jabbed.

Archbishop Comensoli said churches had been flexible during the pandemic, but he noted that for many people of faith, “spiritual wellbeing is as important as psychological and physical wellbeing”.

Similar concerns have also been raised in NSW, where religious leaders have lobbied Health Minister Brad Hazzard for exemptions to a requirement that churchgoers show proof of vaccination once the state reopens.

“We explained that all our faiths are inclined to allow all comers to worship, that many pastors and faithful would be uneasy with restricting worship to the fully vaccinated and that doing so could prove very divisive,” Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said this month.

In Tasmania, Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous has also written to state Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff, asking for an exemption to a public health directive requiring those working in aged care homes from September 17 to be vaccinated or have bookings for their vaccination.

He said he was “obligated to respect the decision of those members of the clergy who have a conscientious objection to receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in Australia”.

Lay Catholics have argued that this position is contrary to that of the Pope, who recently described getting vaccinated as “an act of love”.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement in April saying Catholics in Australia were “encouraged to receive a COVID-19 vaccine” and that it was “morally permissible to accept any [COVID-19] vaccine”.

The Andrews government did not respond to questions from The Age about exemptions sought by religious groups in Victoria.

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