The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Australian state banned singing and dancing during covid. Then the Hillsong megachurch held a ‘youth camp.’

People in line to get tested for the coronavirus in Sydney, which is trying to manage its worst outbreak of the pandemic. (Mark Baker/AP)
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Health officials in the Australian state of New South Wales told the megachurch Hillsong to “immediately stop singing and dancing” after videos emerged of young churchgoers appearing to do so, prompting musicians to accuse officials of instituting a double standard by exempting churches from rules banning such activities.

While New South Wales officials have prohibited singing and dancing at music festivals, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, religious facilities were exempted from the health order instated in an effort to curb the spike in coronavirus cases brought on by the omicron variant. Australia reported a seven-day rolling average of more than 107,000 cases on Friday as it battles its worst outbreak of the pandemic.

Australia is not the only country that has carved out exemptions to sweeping coronavirus containment measures. France’s top constitutional authority has ruled that Paris can impose measures such as vaccine passes, but it made exemptions for some political and religious events. (At least one major presidential candidate in France has said she would voluntarily adhere to the guidelines.)

Videos of attendees at a Hillsong event circulated online in recent days, showing crowds belting out songs and dancing at events that looked more like concerts or music festivals than traditional church services. Hillsong was founded in Australia but has expanded into a global entity with satellites in some 30 countries. It is a big producer of chart-topping musical hits for other evangelical churches, especially those that are Pentecostal.

Dominic Perrottet, the state premier, told reporters Friday that he was “completely shocked” to see the videos, and that he understood the “frustration and anger” people felt after seeing footage of the Hillsong gathering.

“This was an exception to what everybody else right across the state, the efforts [and] sacrifices that people are making,” Perrottet said. “Now, we made those rules and even if technically it was within the rules, it certainly wasn’t in the spirit of the rules.”

He added that any potential loopholes could be tightened.

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“It’s specifically targeting some groups and not others,” said Christopher John Emerson, 32, who performs as the electronic dance music artist What So Not, of the regulations. He said the restrictions were disrupting his attempts to “make up shows from a year and a half ago.”

Emerson questioned why the rules were so disparate between religious and secular events, when the activity and epidemiological risk appeared to be essentially the same. For some, music is “like a religion,” he said.

On Thursday, he was part of a group of musicians who created a satirical video introducing themselves as “Thrillsong,” a group that suggested it would perform to “huge crowds” at churches “but absolutely no festivals, no pubs, no clubs or regular music venues because that would be … different?”

Hillsong said the music-heavy event was part of a Christian youth camp and included worship services. The gatherings “are not music festivals,” the group said in a statement, adding that they were allowed by local public health orders.

The church also apologized for “giving any perception” that it is not helping to keep the state safe from the coronavirus. Hillsong will not face a fine over the event, police said in a statement to local media.

Holly Rankin, an Australian singer-songwriter who performs as Jack River, said the rules “discriminate against our industry in plain sight.”

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“A lot of us are hanging on to our careers by a thread,” she said, noting that many performing artists do not make significant income from streaming services. When government officials let “major sporting events and religious events go ahead, but force music events to cancel, we cannot help but feel like giving up, or at the very least that the system has given up on us.”