Masons lose bid over charity status

Freemasonry's national executive is conceding defeat in its battle to maintain the charitable status it has held for decades.

Last year, the secretive society's highest body in New Zealand, the Grand Union, lost the tax-exempt status it had held since 1933.

Responsibility for determining charitable status was passed from the Inland Revenue Department to the Charities Commission in 2008, forcing thousands of organisations to reapply for tax exemptions.

High-profile organisations including Greenpeace and the Sensible Sentencing Trust have had their applications rejected.

Freemasons New Zealand appealed to the High Court last month, arguing that the Grand Lodge's primary activities were "beneficial to the community" and therefore charitable.

As well as directly charitable activities such as university scholarships (which the commission conceded were charitable), the lodge also teaches public speaking and lessons on ethics to its members, which it argued should also be considered charitable.

Acting for the Crown, Tania Warburton argued that many of the activities of the Grand Lodge were primarily for the benefit of its members, not the entire community. She said its membership, limited to men over the age of 21 who reached the rank of master mason, was too exclusive for a charity.

Judge Simon France rejected the Freemasons' appeal. He concluded that the activities of the Grand Lodge, and freemasonry in general, "do not benefit the public other than indirectly and intangibly by seeking to produce members who are better citizens".

Laurence Milton, the grand secretary for Freemasons New Zealand, said the decision meant the Grand Lodge would have to apply for separate charitable status for its Fund of Benevolence, which did most of its charitable work.

The administration and other activities of the Grand Lodge would now be subject to tax.

"We'd have liked the decision to have been in our favour, but it really won't affect our charitable activity all that much at all. It just means a bit more work for me and my office," Mr Milton said.

The organisation spent $3 million to $4m on charity in New Zealand each year.