When we highlighted an academic article criticising the special status of the nuclear family a few days ago the issue may have seemed rather theoretical. But a decision by the New Zealand Charities Board to remove the charitable status of an advocacy group, Family First NZ, shows that campaigning against the traditional or natural family is not confined to ivory towers.

The board’s move to deregister Family First as a charity goes back to 2013 when it told the group:

“(W)e do not consider that the Trust continues to qualify for registration as it has an independent purpose to promote and protect the traditional family and this is not charitable.”

Co-incidentally, this followed the legalisation of same-sex marriage in New Zealand, which Family First had opposed, sponsoring a petition against the redefinition of marriage in 2012.

The group fought deregistration and the Wellington High Court in 2015 told the board to reconsider. In his decision Justice Collins recognised the strength of Family First’s argument that its advocacy for the concept “…of the traditional family is analogous to organisations that have advocated for the ‘mental and moral improvement’ of society.…” 

The board was told by Justice Collins that “…Members of the Charities Board may personally disagree with the views of Family First, but at the same time recognise there is a legitimate analogy between its role and those organisations that have been recognised as charities.”

Last week’s notification will also be challenged by Family First. In a statement National director, Bob McCoskrie, said:

“This is a highly politicised decision by the Board. Once again, supporters of Family First will have to dig deep to legally defend the existence of an organisation that benefits them. And taxpayers will have to underwrite the Charities Board’s legal expenses in their repeated attempts to muzzle us. It seems to us that they are simply hoping they will get a different judge in the same court.

“This latest development will have a chilling effect for many charitable groups – both registered, deregistered and wanting to be registered – who advocate for causes, beliefs, and on behalf of their supporters, and often have to engage in advocacy at a political level, not always through choice but through necessity.”

Back in 2013 Greenpeace was one of those groups – an unlikely partner in official odium. However, they won a decision in the Supreme Court that they were allowed charitable status, after the organisation was previously dismissed for being too political and staging protests that were illegal.

Family First have never disrupted anyone's business to make a point.

Mr McCoskrie says his group is prepared to go to the Supreme Court if necessary this time.

“Family First will be fighting this decision all the way, not because we have to have charitable status to exist, but because of the threat it places on other charities and their freedom to speak and advocate on behalf of their supporters in a civil society.”

Family First gained approval as a charity 11 years ago. It has passed two audits – one as recently as 2010 – and has made no change to the nature of its operations over years. “It appears that only the opinion of the government organisation overseeing charities has changed,” says Mr McCoskrie. 

Currently registered as charities – and apparently not under threat of losing that status – are three groups that opposed Family First during the same-sex marriage debate: QSA Network Aotearoa, Waikato Queer Youth, Rainbow Youth Incorporated. Also basking in official approval are the Humanist Society of NZ (a crusading secularist group) and a slew of human rights groups dealing with controversial issues, including other gay and transgender rights organisations.

Apparently it’s OK to lobby for new ideas about human beings and the way they relate to one another, but not for the tried and tested ones on which societies currently depend.

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Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet