Update on rules for NSW churches under COVID restrictions

Following my previous comments on the operation of Public Health Orders (PHO’s) in NSW on churches and religion groups (most recently here), this post reports on the latest amendment to the rules, which commenced operation today, Friday 24 July. The Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) Amendment Order (No 2) 2020 made the relevant changes. There is a link here which may be most helpful, however, as it is the consolidated PHO including all the latest amendments (“PHO4”). In short, in light of fears about the rise in coronavirus cases in Victoria and an increasing number of local cases in NSW, the rules around church gatherings have now been tightened once again.

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Some recent US Supreme Court decisions on law and religion

The approach of the official end of the judicial term in the US Supreme Court has seen a number of important law and religion-related decisions handed down in the last week. We have seen decisions relating to access to abortion; to whether the US government can require religious bodies to fund abortion and contraception; to the provision of state funds for religious schools; and to the question of whether discrimination law can be applied to teachers of religion at religious schools. (And all of those are in addition to the other recent major decision in Bostock on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, which I have noted previously.)

Each of the four cases here would warrant (and no doubt will produce) detailed academic commentary. But here I will simply flag the case and the general outlines of the reasoning for those who want to read more.

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Churches and COVID-19 in NSW- PHO No 4 released

Following earlier announcements by the Premier of NSW, the rules regarding public gatherings in the State have been amended with effect from 1 July 2020, in the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) 2020 (“PHO No 4”). This post comments on matters that relate to churches and other religious bodies. For my previous post on the rules under PHO No 3, see here.

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The “ordinary meaning” of sex

In a controversial decision, the United States Supreme Court has held by 6-3, in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia (No. 17–1618; June 15, 2020), that the prohibition of “sex discrimination” in the workplace in Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 means that an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity”. Both majority and minority focus strongly on the issues of how statutes should be interpreted. In my view the concerns expressed by the minority about the “literal” approach of the majority judgment are well-justified, as are the possible detrimental implications for religious freedom in the USA. I will also comment briefly on how similar issues would be resolved in Australia.

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More changes to NSW rules concerning churches

Further to my previous posts on the COVID-19 health rules affecting church services and activities (see here and here), and a paper I presented recently, the NSW Government has released amendments to the previous rules, which take effect today, June 13. This post provides a summary of the more important changes that will affect churches and other religious bodies.

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Guidance released on NSW COVID-19 laws and churches

This is a brief update to my previous post on recently announced changes to restrictions on gathering and movement in NSW (now, in fact, dealing with “gatherings” rather than movement) as they affect churches. The NSW Government has now (as of 31 May) put up online guidance on how “Places of Worship” should be managed. This contains a link to what is called a “COVID-19 Safety Plan” for churches.

While the guidance is generally very helpful, there are unfortunately some inconsistencies between the linked guidance and the formal provisions of the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 3) 2020 (“RGM Order No 3”). It is this order that provides legally binding obligations on NSW citizens, being an order of the Minister for Health and Medical Research, made under section 7 of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW), breach of which amounts to a criminal offence under s 10 of that Act.

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Worship in Coronavirus time- the latest NSW rules

I have previously commented on the rules concerning movement from home, gatherings in public places and opening of public premises which have been applied in Australia while we deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The NSW Minister for Health has just released the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 3) 2020 (“RGM Order No 3”), which commences operation on Monday 1 June 2020 and repeals and replaces the previous orders. In this post I want to outline what the new rules will be in their effect on churches. (These comments will apply in similar ways to other religious groups, of course.)

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Proposed amendments to discrimination complaint handling

In NSW a private member’s Bill designed to improve complaint handing procedures in relation to allegations of discrimination and vilification is being considered by a Committee of the Legislative Council. As a number of the issues have arisen in cases where comments have been made from a religious perspective, Freedom for Faith have made a submission on the Bill (the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Complaint Handling) Bill 2020). As a board member of Freedom for Faith I had some input into the submission, which for those interested can be downloaded here:

The Committee’s home page indicates that submissions closed today (April 26), but I suspect that if others wished to make submissions on the legislation and given the disruptions caused by the current situation, the Committee may be willing to accept late submissions.

Church meetings and COVID-19 in Australia

For most believers in Australia, “law and religion” issues have been interesting but not part of their regular experience. But in this unprecedented time of the coronavirus pandemic, the simple activity of attending regular church services or home groups has been, like much of the rest of life, turned upside down. We now find that our normal weekly gatherings are potentially illegal! In this post I want to review some of the recently-made laws that impact church meetings in Australia.

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