Imagine if the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of a group like Focus on the Family.
What if the IRS commissioner said the group just wasn’t providing enough of a public benefit to justify all the perks of being a registered non-profit? They could still exist, of course, but they’d have to pay taxes like everyone else.
It would never happen in the U.S. Just think of the public outcry. Think of how whiny the Christian Persecution crowd would get. It’s just too absurd to consider.
But that’s what happened in New Zealand a year ago, where the rules are a bit different. There, groups that receive a tax exemption have to actually provide a benefit to the public, not just function as a mouthpiece for a particular point of view.
That’s why an anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality group called Family First New Zealand was removed from the Charities Register several years ago. They were told their activities did “not qualify as being for the public benefit in a charitable sense.” It was the culmination of a legal battle that lasted several years.
In April 2013 the Board previously made the decision to remove Family First from the Charities Register because it did not advance exclusively charitable purposes. That decision was appealed to the High Court by Family First. In June 2015 the High Court directed the Board to reconsider its decision in light of the 2014 Supreme Court Greenpeace judgment and its own judgment.
This decision represents the Board’s reconsideration of Family First’s eligibility for registration.
Specifically, the Charities Board said the group offered one-sided advocacy that didn’t meet educational requirements:
The Board does not consider that Family First has a purpose to advance education. For research to qualify as educational, it must be sufficiently structured to provide a public benefit, not seek to persuade rather than educate, and reach a minimum standard.
… The Board considers that Family First’s other reports sought to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, rather than educate.
If that’s still confusing, the gist of it goes like this: The Charities Board said Family First wasn’t a charity because it was clearly political, and that meant it couldn’t be charitable. Family First said that was a false dichotomy. They could, in theory, be both political and charitable! The High Court agreed and sent the case back to the Charities Board.
Now it was up to Family First to show they were charitable. They couldn’t do it, and their charity status was stripped once again. This time, the Christian group referred to the ruling as “political correctness and muzzling of free speech” and appealed the decision again.
Today, however, the High Court didn’t rule in their favor. Instead, they said the Charities Board was right: Family First wasn’t charitable and it didn’t do anything in the public interest.
“The board considers that Family Trust has a purpose to promote its own particular views about marriage and the traditional family that cannot be determined to be for the public benefit in a way previously accepted as charitable,” the judge said.
The irony here is that if the organization actually put families first, they’d still have their tax exemption. Instead, they lost it because they weren’t providing any objective value to the general public. This isn’t an issue of free speech as it would be in the U.S. It’s a matter of whether the group meets the requirements all registered charities in New Zealand must operate under — and it doesn’t.
Thoughts and prayers all around.