New Zealand’s foremost family advocacy group, Family First, faces losing its charitable status after a judgement from the High Court finding that its purposes and activities are not predominantly for the public good. Coming after a five year battle in the wake of the country’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, the judgement points to the quiet erosion of free speech rights in the new environment.
Family First intend to take their case to the Court of Appeal, but the odds against it are mounting.
According to Justice Simon France the organisation’s “core purpose of promoting the traditional family unit cannot be shown to be in the public benefit in the charitable sense” under the relevant law.
Family First, he says, is primarily engaged in advocacy for “a specific viewpoint” about “family,” (note his avoidance of the definite article). This, “to the extent it involves law change favouring the traditional family unit, would on its face run counter to human rights law which prohibits discrimination on such bases. Unless able to be shown to be a reasonable limit, the position advocated for would be unlawful, an obstacle to charitable status.”
Although a previous court decision about Greenpeace (NZ) allowed that advocacy, as such, is not a disqualification for charitable status, Justice France said such cases were “scarce, and seem increasingly limited to purposes of almost universal acceptance.” In other words, saving whales by challenging ships on the high seas is considered a good thing by most people, while the traditional family is not.
The Child Poverty Action Group is acceptable to the Charities Board, but a group that advocates the family “form” that prevents poverty (as the evidence shows) is not. Amnesty International New Zealand Inc is considered charitable although it advocates for abortion rights – that is, destroying family members; likewise the NZ Drug Foundation, which would have far less work to do at much less cost to the public if children were raised by their own, married mother and father.
These and other groups operate in a similar way to Family First, which supports their right to exist and be recognised as part of freedom of expression and open debate in a civil society. Yet only the family organisation is treated as a pariah.
Assumptions about ‘public benefit’
This is the second time that Family First has gone to court to fight deregistration by the Charities Board. The board first moved against the group in 2013 after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in New Zealand. Family First had campaigned against the law change, advancing arguments for the natural or traditional model of marriage and the family, just as other groups with charitable status had advocated for change.
The High Court at Wellington in 2015 accepted Family First’s submission that this type of advocacy made it “analogous to organisations that have advocated for the ‘mental and moral improvement’ of society…” in the past. Justice Collins directed the board to reconsider deregistration in this light, even though its members “may personally disagree with the views of Family First…” However, he left open the question of whether Family First’s purposes “are for the benefit of the public.”
Well, they are not, say the board and Justice France.
They were, back in 2007 when the organisation gained its charitable status, and for the next five years. Now, according to the court, advocating for the legal pre-eminence of the traditional family is probably against the country’s anti-discrimination law. As for its other purposes, such as reversal of laws legalising prostitution and banning smacking of children, along with opposition to abortion – these are even less likely to be in the public benefit. Furthermore, its many educational reports – packed with the findings of published studies – are merely, with one exception, “a series of publications promoting a cause.”
A fatal vagueness about ‘family’
Justice France is by no means against “family”. It's just “the family” he has a problem with. He gives weight to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related instruments that refer to “the family” as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” and finds:
“Each of these important international documents recognises the centrality of family to society, and declare it to be the natural environment for child rearing.”
Family First pointed out that the New Zealand Families Commission (2003 – 2018) had been established to promote awareness of stable family relationships, the importance of the parenting role and the rights and responsibilities of parents. A growing body of research points to the family based on marriage (in the traditional sense) as more likely to achieve these aims.
The fate of the Families Commission is instructive here. Required to treat families based on civil unions or de facto partnerships as equal to those based on marriage (not to mention other variations), it achieved very little. In 2014 it was restructured and renamed the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Unit, but neither its new focus nor the cute nickname Superu could save it from being abolished by the new Labour Government this year.
The commission’s fatal vagueness about what a “family” actually is, reflects recent laws and is shared by Justice France as well as officialdom. “Leaving aside any attempt to limit the definition of family,” he says, “I consider a purpose of promoting the benefits of a stable family unit for society would likely to be charitable.” If Family First’s purposes were solely to promote “the role” of the family “unit” it would have a much stronger claim to charitable status.
But it is simply not true that every kind of unit raising children can be made stable – at least, not without enormous expenditure of public resources, and probably not even then, since more than money is involved in keeping the parents of a child together, or supporting a mother on her own. There is solid evidence, anyway, that cohabiting parents break up more often than those who are married.
So there’s a basic dishonesty in the judge’s agnosticism about what “family” is. If the laws of the land are askew on this vital point, he should point it out. How can the question of what is in the public interest regarding family advocacy be decided when virtually any combination of children and adults that fits into a house can be called “family”? When there is no accepted norm? This is the point made by Family First board member Bruce Logan:
“The position of the charities board (and now the High Court) is incoherent. It confuses metaphor with reality. Any discussion of the family must presuppose that it can be defined. That definition until recent times has always been accepted to be the natural or traditional family. It’s not possible to talk about alternative families, different kinds of families without first having a primary model.”
Family First will appeal the High Court’s decision, with its narrow view of what is in the public benefit. The organisation — and probably the majority of New Zealanders who have not been cowed by diversity dogma and the slur of homophobia – regards marriage between one man and one woman “a perfectly legitimate and reasonable point of view, as indeed it has been for millennia.”
There is a more than funding involved, it points out: “The importance of freedom of expression and open debate in a civil society are ideals every New Zealander should be defending.”
But with the legislative and bureaucratic environment stacked against them, they will need the vocal support of ordinary Kiwis to demonstrate the public benefit of their case.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.