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Preserve Marriage charity status fears

Preserve Marriage demonstration (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Charity Commissioners have finally released information revealing why more than 30 people objected to Preserve Marriage becoming a charity.

With less than a month to go before the group’s probationary one-year charitable status runs out, the contents of all 31 complaints have been shared with The Royal Gazette.

One gay Bermudian explains in her objection how she feels “bullied” by the organisation, which opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions.

She writes: “There is nothing charitable about them! Their sole purpose is to force our Government to deny equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian persons in Bermuda.”

Another, describing himself as “a Bermudian man who identifies as gay”, writes: “It’s a group whose message divides the community based on an aspect of an individual’s identity, which the individual has no control over.”

One complainant, themselves a former Charity Commissioner, argues that Preserve Marriage is a political organisation with the aim of influencing government policy on same-sex relationships.

The letter writer states: “Irrespective of their stance on marriage equality, Preserve Marriage is doing great harm to the ability of LGBTQ Bermudians and residents to be respected and protected in Bermuda, something which they are to be afforded by the Human Rights Act 1981.”

They add: “To allow what is effectively a political action group to obtain charitable status and solicit funds from the public could set an alarming precedent and, in this instance specifically, could allow a group to act as a ‘charity’, seeking to marginalise a protected class under the Human Rights Act.”

The majority of the objections voice similar concerns, with some referring to the organisation as being a “hate group” which promotes “hate speech”.

Preserve Marriage applied for charitable status early last year, not long after it complied with a request from the Charity Commissioners to remove an online appeal for campaign funds from its website.

The group, a registered company since December 29, 2015, had been seeking donations to “succeed” in its “mandate to preserve marriage in our country”.

Despite the 31 objections filed with the Charity Commissioners, Preserve Marriage’s application was successful and the organisation was given charitable status until April 5 this year.

A source told this newspaper at the time that the decision to grant charitable status was not unanimous and had prompted lengthy debate among the commissioners.

But the final decision was taken after the group successfully argued that its educational work qualified as a “public benefit”, as defined by the Charities Act 2014.

A few days after the decision was made public, in April last year, this newspaper made a public access to information request to the Charity Commissioners for the content of any objections and the minutes of any meetings during which the application was discussed and decided upon.

The initial response from the commissioners was to provide heavily redacted minutes from their meetings on March 8 and 22 and April 5 and 19, which did not reveal the number or substance of the complaints and gave little information on how the commissioners came to their decision. We sought an internal review from Richard Ambrosio, the committee’s chairman, who responded in July to say that providing the content of the objections would have “imposed a substantial and unreasonable interference” with the work of Registry-General staff.

He decreed unredacted minutes could be released, along with the number of objections, and this information was shared in November.

Last week, Mr Ambrosio shared copies of the 31 objections, having removed any information that could identify the authors. He did not explain the change of heart and it wasn’t possible to confirm with him whether Preserve Marriage had applied for a renewal of its charitable status.

A spokeswoman for the Registry-General did not provide the information by press time.

The decision to disclose the material follows an appeal lodged by this newspaper with the independent information commissioner, which is still under review.

Preserve Marriage has been at the forefront of efforts to prevent same-sex couples from obtaining the right to marry in Bermuda, campaigning against such a move when a referendum was held on the issue last June and intervening in an ongoing civil case involving a gay couple who wish to wed here.

There was no response to an e-mailed request for comment to the charity by press time

Our Pati request last April asked for the same information about OUTBermuda, a group which promotes equality for the island’s LGBT community, and which had also applied for charitable status.

No objections were received in relation to OUTBermuda’s application. Its charitable status expires on March 21 and it is expected to apply for renewal.

To see the objections to Preserve Marriage becoming a charity, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”