Following complaints from Hillsong pastor Brian Houston, the government of New South Wales (NSW) has decided to loosen restrictions on houses of worship that are in place due to COVID-19. As of Oct. 23, the number of people allowed to attend religious services will be increased from 100 to 300 as long as the house of worship has a COVID-19 safety plan and attendees provide contact details in case contact tracing is needed.
“There was [sic] some churches who felt that they weren’t being listened to,” said Brad Hazzard, Health Minister for NSW, when he announced the new measures. “I assure you they were.”
Hazzard is alluding to a series of tweets Houston posted at the beginning of the week, one of which said, “We are all committed to keeping people safe, but it seems churches are not even being considered for steadily relaxing restrictions.”
It’s time church leaders unite to take. Stand. We are all committed to keeping people safe, but it seems churches are not even being considered for steadily relaxing restrictions. https://t.co/aYjr4otE12
— Brian Houston (@BrianCHouston) October 19, 2020
Pastor Brian Houston: This Is Discrimination
On Monday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that starting Dec. 1, the number of people who could attend a wedding would increase from 100 to 300. Guests would be required to practice social distancing and stay two square meters apart from one another when outdoors and four square meters apart when indoors. Attendees would also be required to give their personal details for the purposes of contact tracing.
Along with the announcement about weddings, NSW said that beginning Oct. 23, it would ease restrictions on the number of people who could gather in outdoor public places, as well as the number of people who could gather at hospitality venues.
It was after NSW made these announcements that Houston posted a tweet saying, “So interesting that the NSW govt are about to allow 300 people to attend an indoor wedding, and things are being relaxed for the hospitality industry, but still no changes for churches.
He followed it with two others, observing that even though churches were capped at 100 attendees, Hillsong has space to seat 4,000. The pastor added that treating weddings differently than worship services is discriminatory since people are just as friendly with one another at either event.
Houston also voiced his beliefs on 2GB radio, saying, “Churches seem to be left behind.” The pastor clarified he was not pushing to “pack out” church services, but that he simply wants civil leaders to be consistent in how they are applying COVID-19 safety precautions across different parts of society. Houston specifically mentioned this Sunday’s National Rugby League (NRL) grand final, which 40,000 people are allowed to attend.
Houston’s daughter, Laura Toggs, defended her father, saying that Hillsong has gone above and beyond in following COVID-19 safety precautions. “The point Dad is making,” she said, “is that currently in NSW—you can have thousands of people gathered at sporting events, hundreds crammed into public transport, thousands are rubbing shoulders within shopping centres, hundreds even within a restaurant if the space permits and yet the restrictions for churches and places of worship aren’t easing. Trust me—you won’t find me protesting “let us worship” in the streets anytime soon (smh…haha… ) but I have to admit that the rules seem very inconsistent.”