Family First Distorts Facts Surrounding Venue Allowing Same-Sex Marriages

I read with interest an article on stuff.co.nz last week about Living Springs, a Christian venue in Christchurch, that has changed its position on allowing LGBTI couples to get married there. From the tenor of the article it seemed that the venue had come to this policy change in a sensible, rationale and logical way. The director, Denis Aldridge, was quoted saying, “we’ve been on a journey with this one, and we’ve got there… It took a while.”

Part of the journey involves a recent Human Rights Commission complaint against Living Springs after a lesbian couple were refused their request to hire the venue for their wedding. According to the article, Living Springs did not feel coerced by the Human Rights Commission to change their policy. In fact Elizabeth Wiltshire, one half of the couple who made the Human Rights Commission complaint, rang to speak to Aldridge after the change in policy. Wiltshire indicated that Aldridge seemed to be perfectly happy with the outcome.

“It was good, actually. I felt it was genuine. It wasn’t ‘Oh, we’ve had this unlawful policy and now you’re making us change it,’ [he was] very thankful,” she said, “It gave them a mandate to push for change.”

Fast forward one week and lobby group Family First distributes a press release headed “Function Centre Pressured to Allow Same-Sex Weddings.” The Press Release uses Living Springs as a reason to push the narrative that “Faith-based function centres” are being held hostage and forced into holding LGBTI marriages when they don’t feel they should have to. Family First also continues to make allegations that some in government said this would never happen which is factually incorrect as the opposite was clearly signalled at the time.

“If a church currently hires out their hall for money, they can’t discriminate against any group who chooses to hire out that hall.” Louisa Wall, Q&A.March 2013

I saw Family First’s Press Release on Facebook and it didn’t ring accurate to me after having read the stuff article. The change in Living Springs’ policy seemed more pragmatic than pressured. The conversation on the Facebook post ebbed and flowed between Living Springs and general negative comments about marriage equality. However anytime a contributor suggested the headline of the Press Release may be incorrect Family First director Bob McCoskrie pushed back with the idea that Living Springs “were certainly placed under pressure.”

This really didn’t add up to me, so I phoned Living Springs Director Denis Aldridge myself and requested a formal interview to use for elephantTV. It turns out Aldridge’s story is fascinating.

As a Pastor he was at the forefront of protests in Balclutha in 1986 opposing the Homosexual Law Reform Act. Since then he has been on what he describes as a “journey of thirty years”, where various people came into his life at different stages and challenged his perspective on what it means to be gay. Today Aldridge is an supporter for marriage equality. To have shifted from being someone who led the march against homosexual law reform to someone who is now ‘pro’ marriage equality is simply remarkable.

I wanted to clear up the most important claim by Family First that Living Springs was ‘pressured’ into changing their policy. Aldridge’s response was simple.

“It’s totally wrong and that didn’t come from us, that was the narrative that the guy that rung me wanted and I refuted it” he said. “The reality was [Living Springs] didn’t feel strongly that way, we’d actually come as an organisation [to the place where] we were seeing it, we believe, on a higher level and the higher level was ‘what would Jesus do?’”

Aldridge also made it clear that if they were to take what many Christians believe to be a “biblical interpretation” on marriage and reject marriage equality, then “we have to take a biblical line on re-marriage and divorced people” as well, given that the bible specifically denounces those forms of marriage.

Family First contacted Aldridge looking for comment on their change in policy prior to writing the press release and Aldridge wanted to make clear that he told Bob McCoskrie that they did not “feel coerced [into making the decision to change policy].”

“It’s actually that we have decided it’s the right thing to do” Aldridge said.

Aldridge feels as if Family First has purposely ignored their position.

”They obviously have an agenda, there’s a certain narrative that they wanted to hear and they’ve printed that narrative,” he stated.

Aldridge said they “weren’t pressured into [holding Same Sex marriages]” and they “don’t see it as capitulation.” The issue of Same Sex couples using the venue was already being spoken about at Living Springs, “we’d already had this conversation and that was the words I felt Bob [McCoskrie] was trying to put into my mouth that we were bullied into it, we answered that [we were not] but he’s gone ahead with that story anyways.”

Aldridge finished the interview with a challenge to us all, “I felt really proud of [Living Springs] in the end that we had, I suppose, the humility to say ‘well we haven’t always been right in this thing.’”

To clear up one issue with this whole thing. The law is clear, and it hasn’t changed since Same-Sex marriages were legalised. There is no ambiguity. If you hire a venue to the general public then you must abide by the Human Rights Act of 1993. This doesn’t allow discrimination in twelve main areas, one of which is ‘sexual orientation’. If you hire your venue to the general public for marriages, now that LGBTI couples can marry, then you cannot withhold the venue from them because of their sexual orientation. Prior to marriage equality, if your venue made itself available to the general public and that same LGBTI couple wanted to use it for a birthday party, or a baby dedication, or any kind of celebration that you’d hire it to any heterosexual person for, you also couldn’t refuse them because of their sexual orientation. There is no difference in the law.

I gave Family First the opportunity to retract or correct their statement about Living Springs informing them of the interview I had conducted and the information that came from that interview. They have refused to do so. It is now unequivocally clear that Living Springs were not ‘pressured’ or ‘bullied’ or ‘forced’ into making this policy change. They chose to, and were happy to change.

The full unedited interview with Denis Aldridge is below.

 

Update: 15/04/2016, 3.30pm

I’ve just been contacted by one of the people who I asked to speak to Bob McCoskrie from Family First claiming there is an inaccuracy in the post which I obviously want to correct. Bob maintains that the phrase “he declined to meet with them.” is inaccurate. Bob’s supposition is that the emails between them may be seen as a meeting and, as it was obvious that my representatives were going to support my position of challenging Family First, he felt there was no need to speak about the issue any further.

So, just to be perfectly clear, Bob did exchange emails with the people I asked to meet with him, in which he defended his position and said that there was no reason to meet.

There was no challenge to the accuracy of any of the other information I have provided in the post by either Bob McCoskrie or Family First.

Family First Loses Charitable Status

So Family First has been struck off the Charities Registry and as of the 27th of this month will lose all the financial benefits of being a Charity, as will their supporters.

Family First and I may not agree all the time, but I know Bob McCoskrie pretty well and have no problems with the idea of them getting financial gain from being a Charity. See when it comes down to it, it is you and I who subsidise Charities for the non-tax paying, non-bank fee paying, rebates to supporters financial benefits they get.

We subsidise them by paying the tax, paying the bank fees, and then having our government giving back to their supporters some of their donations which never actually make it into the hands of the public coffers. Groups like Family First get the donation, and then from our taxes the government via IRD give one third of that back.

So whether we support a particular charity or not, we do indeed subsidise them, and I’ll say again I have no problems subsidising Family First as I have no problem subsidising many other charities.

But now comes the conversation specifically about Family First. I also have no problem with a group, who now falls outside prescribed definition of a charity being struck off. The question is does Family First no longer fit the criteria they have apparently adhered to for the 7 years they have operated as a charity.

I have two questions for you. What charitable work does Family First do? What is Family First’s ‘core business’?

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) says for an entity to be charitable it must

  • fall within one of the four charitable purposes set out in section 5(1) of the Charities Act and
  • provide a public benefit and
  • not be aimed at creating private financial profit.

Notice that an entity must do all three be considered a charity, it’s not an ‘either or’.

The four charitable purposes in section 5(1) of the Charities Act “includes every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community.”

I think it’s pretty clear that some of those ideas are relative, in other words who is to decide if a group is providing a public benefit. In the case of Family First, much like any group, those who support and agree with them would say ‘Yes!’ and it’s likely that those who do not would say ‘No!’ which is also an interesting time to point out that there is only a three person board for registering, or de-registering a charity. So if two of the three people on the board have a vested interested in an issue, they could then get an entity registered as a charity or indeed de-registered. I am not implying this has happened in this case, I do not know that, but those are the facts when it comes to a charity losing its status.

I do wonder if where Family First has run foul of the DIA is around some more measurable criteria.

The DIA uses court definitions of what advocacy is deemed ‘charitable’. “personal and representational advocacy — for example, helping people access benefits as part of your charitable work” is acceptable where as “political advocacy — for example, lobbying for a law change” is not.

So what is ‘political advocacy’?

Again the DIA uses the courts definition which states “advocacy for political change, for a political party, for a law change or enforcement of a particular law has, however, been regarded by the courts as non-charitable” which is likely the death rattle for Family First.

I don’t think it can be argued that Family First, in the two public campaigns they have gotten the most exposure for, have advocated hard for political change with the smacking bill and for a law to be enforced in the case of Same-Sex Marriage. If you are following what the DIA sets out to be a charity then these criteria is where Family First have fallen short.

I think Family First is a lobby group and I wonder if a lobby group can also be a charity. I have no problems with Family First being struck off using the legal definition of what a charity is, and the DIA saying certain advocacy cannot be performed if you want to call yourself a charity…it’s their game and their rules to follow.

However here is my concern, and it is reflected in the last post about Aaron Gilmore, for me it now comes down to consistency. If you are going to say that because Family First doesn’t fit this part of the definition of being a charity, if that’s going to be your filter …then how many other entities need to also be stuck off? If what the DIA is saying is that the ‘core business’ of Family First is political lobby, as opposed to family advocate, how many other charities have a similar ‘public perception’ versus ‘reality in practice’ and need to be struck off.

This is where I need your help. Can you list for me in the comments below what other charities you think might have their heads on the block, if you used the same filter on them, as appears to have been used on Family First.

Thoughts?