In a joint lawsuit filed today, Australian pastors and rabbis take the New South Wales, Victorian and Federal Governments to court to have religious freedoms restored.
Is worship essential? That is the question that will be discussed today in the Federal Court of Australia after three evangelical pastors and several Jewish congregations filed a joint lawsuit against the New South Wales, Victorian and Commonwealth Governments. The landmark filing seeks injunctive relief from lockdown orders so that religious groups can resume meeting for worship.
Lodged on Thursday and due to be heard on Friday morning, the lawsuit argues that houses of worship are an essential service, providing significant spiritual, psychological and emotional support to their communities.
There are seven plaintiffs in the suit, including Christopher Athavle, a pastor at Smithfield Baptist Church in Sydney, Rabbi Menachem Kaminetzky from Melbourne, and former government economist John Adams.
The defendants named are NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Victorian Health Minister Martin Pakula, according to The Australian.
The joint lawsuit argues that there is no constitutional or common law grounds on which the NSW or Victorian governments can deny their citizens the freedom to congregate for worship.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has previously conceded that lockdowns are a “pretty blunt instrument” and that they “obviously impose and impinge on our freedoms and make life very difficult” for Australian citizens.
According to the filing, governments have acted arbitrarily and with discrimination by deeming places of worship “non-essential” and mandating their closure, while permitting liquor stores, newsagencies and other commercial venues to remain open as “essential”.
The plaintiffs allege that these arbitrary distinctions are not supported by robust scientific or medical evidence, have not been implemented proportionally, and should allow for some religious observance.
An independent expert report written by Jayanta Bhattacharya — the globally renowned COVID-19 expert and Professor of Medicine at Stanford University — will be submitted as part of the lawsuit.
In a media release, Lead Solicitor Tony Nikolic wrote that “courts in other jurisdictions such as Scotland have also ruled that COVID-19 measures cannot indiscriminately close Houses of Worship.”
If granted, the injunction will allow religious Jews in both NSW and Victoria to celebrate the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Monday.
“We’re not here to be vindictive or dishonouring towards the government,” Pastor Robert Ayoub, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told Australian news site Caldron Pool. “We’re just seeking to be able to practice our religion freely, and we’re appealing to our government to allow us to love our God and also love our neighbour, to love our community.”
Tom Eglinton, an Elder at Smithfield Baptist, told the Daily Declaration that “the word ‘church’ or ‘ekklesia’ by definition assumes a people called out from their homes to gather in a public place”. He adds that “many of the ‘one another’ commands of the New Testament can only be obeyed in the context of the church community.”
“The current government health orders are preventing us from being obedient to these commands,” Eglinton explains.
Leaders and members from Smithfield Baptist have written over 200 letters to state and federal politicians, Eglinton tells us. However, in the responses provided, the government has “not addressed our concerns or sought to understand the essential nature of church” and “not allowed for the physical gathering of the church in any way”.
In the media release, Lead Solicitor Tony Nikolic explains that court action was the last possible venue for the plaintiffs to have their religious freedoms protected:
My clients have attempted to engage with the NSW and Victorian Premiers and their Ministers as well as various NSW, Victorian and Federal Parliamentarians to have their grievances addressed in a diplomatic and respectful manner.
Unfortunately, in the context of NSW, the NSW Government has been unwilling to engage with my clients in any meaningful dialogue. As a result, our only last venue for relief is the courts.
Nikolic also clarifies that the churches and synagogues he represents are willing to adhere to “exactly the same health measures required by the NSW and Victorian Public Health Orders,” including the use of hand sanitisers, facial masks, QR codes and social distancing.
“If these measures are satisfactory for supermarkets, newsagents and liquor stores,” says Nikolic, they “should be satisfactory for Houses of Worship, especially given that Australians have a constitutional and common law right of religious freedom, observance and practice”.
Tom Eglinton echoes the same sentiment. “As demonstrated through other essential services, when something is essential, we can find a way to do it safely.”
Editor’s Note: Tom Eglinton and Smithfield Baptist Church support The Moses Statement, an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state premiers, urging a reopening of churches across the nation. The Moses Statement can be read and signed here.
[Photo: The Gympie Times]