Teacher launches Victorian challenge to vaccine mandate

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The first Victorian legal challenge to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for teachers has been issued in court.

Self-represented casual relief teacher Belinda Cetnar and horticulturalist Jack Cetnar have gone to the Supreme Court to argue the no jab, no work policy is not legally or ethically justified, undermines the rule of law and is inconsistent with their human rights.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino (centre) addresses the media.Credit:Scott McNaughton

It follows legal challenges to mandates in NSW and Queensland.

The Victorian government announced almost a fortnight ago that vaccines would be compulsory for all staff at schools and early childhood centres starting October 18, and Premier Daniel Andrews last week widened the mandate to all authorised workers.

In documents submitted to the Supreme Court, the Cetnars questioned the health advice the decision was based on, arguing the mandates were discriminatory.

“The blanket mandate approach does not consider the human rights of those it is imposed on and the defendants have failed to consider less restrictive means reasonably available to achieve the purpose for which they seek to achieve,” their statement of claim read.

The Cetnars also said people with religious objections would be discriminated against, and that had not been considered when the mandate was announced.

They listed various human rights provisions and laws they argued the policy contravened, including the Constitution, the Biosecurity Act, the Fair Work Act and the Nuremberg Code.

The Cetnars, who say they could lose their employment over the mandate, declined to comment when contacted by The Age.

Though The Age was unable to establish which schools Ms Cetnar, a registered teacher, most recently worked at, Mr Cetnar is a horticulturalist for Crest Education Ltd, an educational precinct in Melbourne’s south-east that includes Hillcrest Christian College and Rivercrest Christian College.

Crest executive principal Brendan Kelly said he was unaware of the legal action, and said it was taken in a private capacity.

“The College has encouraged staff to be vaccinated and will be complying with all government requirements and public health directions,” Mr Kelly said.

The Cetnars are seeking an injunction to prevent the mandate from going ahead, and argued they should not be held liable for damages that could be awarded against them for pursuing a case they say is in the public interest. Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and Acting Chief Health Officer Deborah Friedman are listed as respondents to the lawsuit.

Education unions almost universally backed compulsory jabs when the policy was announced, with support from the Australian Education Union, Independent Education Union and Early Learning Association Australia.

“We have encouraged, and will keep encouraging our members to get vaccinated as soon as possible as the best way to protect themselves, their families and their communities from COVID-19,” AEU Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said.

Christian Schools Australia supported vaccinations generally, but “mandating vaccination is a significant step beyond this” and warned of significant challenges for schools where staff refused to partake.

When announcing the vaccination mandate for the sector, deputy premier James Merlino said: “This protects staff, it protects students, it protects our children’s families”.

In NSW, a legal challenge against the mandate has come from multiple plaintiffs, including an aged care worker, paramedic, high school special education teacher and a construction worker.

In Queensland, seven police employees, including five serving officers, have gone to court.

Overseas, the Supreme Court declined to block New York City’s requirement that public school teachers receive vaccinations, generally a sign the court believed the request lacked a compelling legal argument, The Washington Post reported.

Other challenges to the public health orders, which the mandate was also made under, in Victorian courts have so far failed.

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