Hillsong Church Gets Off ‘Scott’ Free

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The New South Wales Police Force has spent the best part of the past two years handing out fines and even arresting and prosecuting ordinary working Australians for failing to comply with public health orders, but in the past week, one of the country’s wealthiest churches – one of which our own Prime Minister, Scott Morrison is a member – has avoided being fined despite evidence of Covid breaches.

Breaching orders

Images of hundreds of young people singing and dancing without masks at a Hillsong Church youth camp circulated on social media last week – as the Covid-19 case numbers were continuing to climb at an alarming rate – and after the NSW Premier had banned singing and dancing as part of a new set of rules to help stop escalating transmission rates.

The Church denied that the camp was a ‘festival’ and apologised for giving the perception it was “not playing its part in keeping NSW safe”.

This led to police – who have normally been overzealous and inflexible in their enforcement of Covid breaches – to caution the Church rather than issue it with fines of up to $55,000.

Did the Church break the rules?

At the time, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said he was “shocked” by the photos, and NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard expressed the view they demonstrated the revelers were “clearly in breach of both the spirit and intent” of current public health orders.

Even government lawyers expressed the opinion that the images evidenced clear breaches of the rules.

And while NSW Health has exempted religious services, the rules do not apply when it comes to major recreation facilities.

Despite this, police say they decided not to issue fines after consulting with government authorities.

Instead, the organisers were cautioned after promising to stop attendees from singing and dancing for the duration of the event.

It’s just another example of the lack of clarity within the rules, and the inconsistency in which rules and regulations have been enforced across New South Wales since the start of the pandemic.

Insult to the music industry

The music industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic, with the long-term closure of pubs and clubs, the cessation of busking in many places, international travel bans, and the temporary ban on music festivals has been particularly outspoken.

A number of bands and artists have come together to protest the ban on live music which threatens their incomes, while sporting events and religious services have been allowed to continue.

Slamming the ‘double-standard and the fact that the rules don’t appear to apply equally, the group has said it is in discussions with lawyers to see if musicians have a case for discrimination against the New South Wales government.

At the start of the pandemic, musicians and actors found they did not qualify for some of the Government handouts.

To that end, in the middle of last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic wore on, the NSW Government gave the industry $20 million to support struggling artists, and to help the industry get back on its feet. But it is continuing to suffer. Recently the Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Grapevine Gathering in the Hunter Valley were both cancelled.

Hillsong Church pulls in tens of millions of tax-free dollars in Australia every year.

Inflammatory comments on social media

Only days before the picture of youth dancing started to circulate on social media, Hillsong’s Australian co-founder Brian Houston had weighed in on the Federal Circuit Court decision to let tennis player Novak Djokovic stay in Australia, tweeting:

“He should never have been allowed in the country. Hopefully Australia will learn from it and toughen up the rules.”

He completed the tweet with the hashtag #proudlyvaccinated.

His tweet received mixed responses, but many took the chance to comment on what they believed were discriminatory, lacking Christian sentiment.

Last year, Brian Houston was charged by New South Wales Police over his alleged concealment of child sexual abuse allegegedly perpetrated by his father Frank Houston (now deceased) in the 1970s, who was also a pastor of Pentecostal churches both in New Zealand and Sydney.

Mr Houston maintains his innocence and has vowed to fight the charges.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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