Thousands of people of faith across Victoria have signed an online petition urging Premier Daniel Andrews and his Government to change the current restrictions applied to places of worship under Step 3 of the Victorian roadmap to recovery.

Fairness for people of faith

Under the current roadmap, Step 3 would see cafes and restaurants reopen with a COVID-safe plan and seat up to 20 people indoors and 50 outdoors. By comparison, places of worship with a COVID-safe plan are only allowed to open for private worship (one family plus another within a household bubble) and outdoor gatherings are restricted to 10 people.

‘Religious organisations should be afforded the same opportunity to open for indoor worship with density-quotas equivalent to those seen in other parts of the community such as hospitality. We were afforded the opportunity to act in a COVID-safe manner as we emerged from the first lockdown; we deserve to be afforded the same opportunity again as we emerge from the second lockdown,’ the petition states.

Entitled Equality for Victoria’s People of Faith, the petition was started by Melburnians Mrs Ewa Chlipala and Dr Joanna Waloszek Czerwinski on 29 September and has since garnered thousands of signatures from across the community.

The petition follows an earlier letter sent to the Premier by the Catholic bishops of Victoria, seeking an explanation for the discrepancy in the current Step 3 Roadmap rules.

Ewa, who works in risk management in the hospital and aged care sector and is a parishioner at St Benedict’s in Burwood, says the Government needs to be fair across all sectors.

‘Over the last six months, people of faith have been really committed to keeping everyone safe and finding creative ways to practice our faith,’ said Ewa. ‘But spiritual wellbeing has been overlooked.’

‘We saw our faith leaders speak up about it but nothing’s changed yet. We wanted to show that this is extremely important to people of faith and that once it’s safe to do so, there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t’ be able to open up in the same way [as other sectors].’ Ewa and Joanna have begun inviting other faith communities across Victoria and hope the groundswell will illustrate for the Government the need for a more equitable treatment of people of faith.

As an academic specialising in psychology research in aged care and mental health, Joana says the reopening of places of worship is not just about addressing fairness but encouraging the wellbeing of the community. 'Spirituality and spiritual wellbeing is just as important as mental and physical wellbeing. They’re all connected so you can’t have one without the other. You can only do so much over the internet so it’s really important for places of worship to be open in a safe way.’

Creating meaningful change

Earlier in September, rules around ministers of religion visiting the sick and dying were changed without prior consultation with faith leaders. This prompted Archbishop Peter A Comensoli to contact the Government and seek a revision.

‘Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic the Catholic community has been transparent in its application of Government restrictions, however hard going this has been, and that our commitment to the common good and the law is maintained,’ Archbishop Comensoli wrote at the time.

‘However, when a law or restriction unfairly treats a religious community, it raises questions for members of that community. In this case, I was pleased to enter into a constructive dialogue, and the Premier very quickly responded to an obvious problem.’

Joanna hopes a similar outcome can be achieved with this petition from the community.

‘We want to raise the issue – and like the Last Rites – we want to create meaningful change,' said Joanna. ‘It’s not just about the people who want to open their churches – it’s also the people who miss being there and who want to practice their faith in their place of worship. This is something that impacts all people of faith – we can approach this together as we have common ground.’

People of all faiths are being encouraged to sign the petition, with organisers hopeful that once 10,000 signatures have been collected the petition can be tabled in the Victorian Parliament.