By Maani Truu, ABC
Posted Sat 25 Sep 2021
Since the recent round of stay-at-home orders were introduced in Sydney and Melbourne, religious messages and motifs have been popping up at loosely defined “anti lockdown” protests across Australia.
As one widely photographed sign at a Sydney demonstration in July declared: “The blood of Christ is my vaccine.”
No major religion in Australia has expressly told its followers to forgo vaccination against COVID-19. In fact, many faith leaders have played a key role in combating vaccine misinformation in their communities.
But as the above sign — and others like it — indicate, that doesn’t mean people aren’t being guided by their beliefs when deciding to refuse the jab.
It’s this grey area that Dr Renae Barker, an expert in law and religion at the University of Western Australia, said will make it difficult for the legal system to rule on whether policies that bar unvaccinated people from participating in certain activities — as already in place in Victoria, NSW and some industries — warrant a religious exemption provision.
And the question is already playing out internationally, particularly in the United States, where thousands of people have already sought exemptions from vaccine mandates on religious grounds.
“Do I think we need to have a conversation about [religious] exemptions? Possibly,” Dr Barker said, “I don’t think that conversation will go very far. I think politicians will very quickly say health, in this case, trumps freedom of religion.”
Australia’s history of religious exemptions
Looking back through Australia’s recent history, there’s only been one religion that has successfully lobbied for a vaccine exemption. That is the Christian Scientists, a small sect of Christianity who believes in prayerful healing to manage their health.
According to the 2016 Census, just 974 Australians reported they were Christian Scientist, out of 12 million people identifying as Christian more broadly.
In 1998, the church was granted an exemption to the Federal Government’s new “no jab, no pay” laws that meant children had to be vaccinated to receive childcare and family benefits. They were the only religion to receive such an exemption — which required parents and carers to provide a letter from a church leader — sparking unfounded fears the decision would cause a flood of new converts eager to bypass the laws.
But when it comes to COVID-19, the Christian Scientists are taking a different approach.
“As far as our practice of trusting our problems to God prayerfully, that hasn’t really altered,” said Edwina Aubin, a Christian Scientist practitioner from Brisbane. “We’re not ‘anti-vax’ as such, and neither are we ‘pro-vax’ … if it’s what’s required, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Ms Aubin explains that while the majority of the church’s members feel they don’t require traditional medicine, instead relying on prayer and the support of practitioners in the church, there’s nothing stopping them from seeking it out — whether it’s a legal requirement or not.
But even so, she said the question of whether to get the COVID-19 jab “probably has challenged many Christian Scientists”. In making the decision, she pointed to another core tenet of their beliefs: “Do to another what you want done to yourself.”
“I certainly know those who have chosen to be vaccinated have done so because they feel it’s the more loving thing to do to allay the fears of those around them,” she said.
“We’re conscious that we don’t want to make another fearful because of our stance, and if there’s no fear in our thought to go ahead and be vaccinated then that’s a more loving step to take.”
It’s this approach that led the government to scrap religious exemptions to immunisation completely in 2015, declaring the policy no longer necessary.
But COVID-19 has brought with it fresh debate around religious and conscientious objection to vaccination, particularly as states move towards a system of different rules for the unvaccinated.
Dr Barker said just because a religion doesn’t formally ban or mandate something doesn’t mean all adherents will comply: “Each individual does often have an individual interpretation of their requirements.”
But this is an area where Australian courts have “really struggled” to make a legal distinction, she said. “And it’s a very important distinction”.
Dr Barker said there’s been a handful of cases where Australian courts have been asked to determine whether a person really did something on the basis of their religion, which is protected under anti-discrimination legislation.
To highlight the distinction she provides this example: If someone chooses to be vegan because they believe it is good for their health and their workplace refuses to provide vegan options at a lunch event, it is not discrimination. But, if someone abstains from eating animal products because it is part of their religion and the workplace fails to accommodate this, it is.
This becomes more complicated when someone’s religious belief does not align with the commonly held practices of their organisation.
“The courts struggled with this idea that even different groups within the one larger religion might have different views and I suspect the courts will struggle even more with the idea that individuals within a religion will have a different view,” Dr Barker said.
“Religious practice and religious belief are very nuanced, and it’s very diverse, and even if we don’t think people are getting their religion ‘right’ they sincerely believe they are.
“And it’s a very challenging thing to do for a secular lawmaker, be that a legislature or a court, to say to that person ‘we think you’ve interpreted your religion wrong’.”
This means that, in the absence of religious leaders telling their followers they shouldn’t be vaccinated, any push for religious exemptions would depend on the individual being able to demonstrate why they believe their decision is tied to their religious beliefs.