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Christian groups oppose broadening marriage rights

Christian groups in New Zealand have vowed to fight government plans to recognize gay and lesbian relationships and grant same-sex couples the same rights as married couples.

Should the government legalize same-sex marriage, complete with divorce and adoption rights, New Zealand would be the third country to do so. Denmark allowed homosexual marriages in 1989, and the Netherlands passed similar legislation in September.

Same-sex marriage is an equally divisive topic in the United States, where voters in 35 states have approved legislation defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman only. Some of those states also refuse to recognize same-sex relationships made legal by court order and subsequent legislative action in Vermont earlier this year and by the Hawaii legislature in 1997.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark favors legal recognition of gay couples, despite significant opposition in public submission to a government discussion paper. Clark says recognition could happen within a year, but laws governing the division of property could be passed as early as next month.

A Parliamentary Select Committee decided to push through the Property (Relationships) Bill, which would give the same property rights as married couples to gay and de facto couples after three years together. The bill is likely to become effective in February 2002.

More than 130,000 couples, including 1,600 gay couples, would be affected but could sign "opt-out" agreements to avoid property splits.

A parliamentary report released earlier this month indicated that many New Zealand residents support the proposals despite concerns raised by 1,631 public submissions. Justice Ministry officials said it could not find any other country that included married, de facto, and same-sex couples in one law.

New Zealand lawyers oppose the proposed property law changes and have been advising couples on the changes to keep their assets separate.

Associate Justice Minister Margaret Wilson has said the new law is "sensible, fair, liberal, and humane," but many Christian groups disagree. The Christian Heritage Political Party (CHP) opposed property law reforms and will oppose any attempts to reform marriage laws.

"Children have the right to be parented by both a mother and a father," Christian Heritage leader the Reverend Graham Capill told Newsroom. "They need the input of a male and a female. If the government tries to bring in legislation for homosexual marriage or the adoption of children, we will create quite a campaign."

The CHP was among 8,464 organizations and individuals that responded to a Ministry of Justice discussion paper, "Same Sex Couples and the Law," released to gauge feelings on the issue of gay unions. The New Zealand government asked the ministry to prepare the 16-question paper to assess the consistency between the Human Rights Act and other laws that treat same-sex couples differently from traditional marriages. The discussion paper followed a 1998 Court of Appeal decision prohibiting same-sex couples from legally marrying under New Zealand’s gender-neutral 1955 Marriage Act.

The Justice Ministry received 3,546 responses representing the views of 8,464 organizations and individuals, with religious groups making up the bulk of groups that responded. Eighty percent of the respondents rejected assertions that same-sex couples should marry, while 82 percent said same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt. Many asserted that the government was wrong to decriminalize homosexuality when the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill was passed.

The report summarizing responses was completed in July but has only recently been released. Many respondents consider marriage a moral and religious institution, rather than a secular one. Others view the current refusal to allow same-sex marriage and subsequent legal protections as a breach of human rights. Under the 1993 Human Rights Act, discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and religion is prohibited. The act, however, does not supersede other legislation. It defines homosexuality, but not religion.

Clark, who said she had not read the submissions, dismissed the comments as not reflective of public opinion.

But Capill accused the Coalition Labour Government of selective listening on moral matters: "If the result had been the other way around you can bet your bottom dollar that Helen Clark would say, ‘Here’s a mandate to change legislation.’ Labour is trying to have their cake and eat it, too."

Marriage between a man and a woman is the appropriate environment for child-rearing, Capill insisted. He did not disagree that gay couples can have stable, long-lasting relationships. But he shares the opinion of the New Zealand’s Catholic Bishops Conference that such relationships are not the basis for legal entitlements. The Catholic church teaches that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. New Zealand’s bishops object to registration of same-sex couples, but support legislation that protects human rights, including property rights.

The New Zealand Law Commission supports registration of same-sex couples. But Commissioner D.F. Dugdale contends that same-sex marriages would offend many people. "Gays and lesbians should be prepared to acknowledge that they are not harmed by a legal code designed to avoid giving what may be seen as a gratuitous offense to those for whom matrimony is a holy estate," he said in a submission to the ministry.

Gay Christian groups disagree. GalaXies Incorporated (Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Christian community), based in Wellington, believes that same-sex couples should have the same legal privileges as heterosexual couples in regard to marriage, including access rights upon the death of a partner.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission backs reforms to secure legal rights for gay couples. People in same-sex relationships are second-class citizens with respect to the most important aspect of their personal lives, the commission maintains. Any reform should allow them to choose a legal status which is in all respects the same as that attaching to marriage, the commission contends.

But that does not necessarily mean access to marriage law, maintains Nigel Christie, a legal adviser to New Zealand’s gay community. A prominent supporter of gay rights in New Zealand and a member of at least six homosexual groups, Christie notes a recent decision of a New Zealand High Court judge defining marriage as a fundamental civil right covering public and secular areas, rather than spiritual affairs. On the basis of equality under New Zealand’s domestic Human Rights law, Christie maintains that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

Wellington Christian Apologetics Society director David Lane calls that right an attack on the Christian faith. He is appalled at calls to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, arguing that any moral aspect cannot be ignored. "[Marriage] is about giving legal preference to a unique relationship between a man and a woman because of what that relationship does for social order," he said. "To call a same-sex relationship ‘marriage’ is an inversion of the very term."

Clark indicated that the introduction of any bill redefining marriage laws would be subject to a conscience vote after a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing. A conscience vote is one in which a political party does not direct its members about how to vote but leaves the vote to the individual member's conscience.

Lane concedes that homosexuality is no worse a sin than promiscuity or adultery but says the family is "the cornerstone of society" and must be preserved in law.

ENDS

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