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Would You Choose To Live In A Same Sex Family?

Big News with Dave Crampton

Would you choose to live in a same sex family?

The Government plans to introduce legislation to recognise same sex relationships in a few months. Two bills are to be introduced and will extend to same sex and opposite sex couples.

During the last month or two, debate has centred around sole parents and married parents. Next year the debate will be all about the two- parent family - gay v straight. The debate will not be whether two parents are better than one, it may well be whether a child needs a biological mother and a father, or whether two fathers and two mothers will be just as adequate. What family form would you select if you had the choice?

At present, if you value legal recognition and protection, you'd probably choose a opposite sex two parent family, preferably married over same sex parents. Same sex couples are not covered in law to the extent that married couples are. Yet during the past few years, changes in legislation have been in favour of same sex couples and that is about to continue with three pieces of legislation.

A Civil Union Bill aims to register same sex partnerships, create a new relationship status, and recognise that status as an equivalent alternative to marriage for all purposes of the law in New Zealand. Another bill, the Legal Recognition of Relationships Bill (dubbed the "Omnibus Bill"), will amend individual Acts and regulations so that unjustified differences in the treatment of different kinds of couples under the law are eliminated, whether couples are married, de facto or in a civil union. Most issues of unjustified discrimination in the bills are issues relating to marital status and sexual orientation. The third bill is the Adoption Reform Bill that should surface mid to late 2004. The passage of this bill will enable all couples, including same sex couples, to jointly adopt children.

There are more than 1000 provisions in 160 statutes and regulations that distinguish between married and unmarried couples. There are also 51 statutes that no longer distinguish between married and unmarried couples, but extend to all couples. Examples are the Property Relationships Act 1986, the Parental Leave and Employment Act 1987. The first Act that extended to same sex couples, the Electricity Act 1992, enabled same sex couples to fix each others appliances, and is known as the "gay toaster" law in some circles.

Some consider that "civil Union" is a counterfeit pseudonym for marriage and is being promoted as an extension of tolerance, equality and civil rights for same sex couples - and to win official affirmation and celebration of behaviour that is still viewed as morally wrong by many New Zealanders.

In the past 16 years, the law has moved from making homosexual acts criminal to making them permitted to making them socially acceptable. The Civil Union Bill, in creating a relationship status, is designed to make same sex relationships equal to sexual relationships that can reproduce without artificial assistance. Yet civil marriage, rather than civil union, is the only way to ensure gay and lesbian couples have all the same legal protection as other married couples. Other de facto couples can marry.

Marriage, unlike civil unions, is a unique legal status conferred by and recognised by governments the world over. It brings with it a host of reciprocal obligations, rights, and protections. No other word has that power, and no other word can provide that protection.

A civil union is a legal status created by governments. It provides legal protection to couples who would like to get married but are unable to, but omits the dignity, clarity, security and power of the word "marriage."

Several governments are currently considering civil unions, the latest being the US state of Massachusetts. Last month, the state's highest court said that barring same sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional. The ruling said, "barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution." The court stayed the order for 180 days to enable the legislature to fine a solution. Most gay activists have said the decision means that gay couples will soon be able to marry, but the Senate is expected to send a civil union bill to the state Supreme Judicial Court and ask if the legislation conforms with the court's gay marriage decision. The bill will not describe the unions as marriage - nor will NZ's bill. The Senate will have to rethink the issue if a civil union bill does not comply with the court decision. Meanwhile, marriage advocates are calling for an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Marriages are respected country to country for all purposes, but questions remain about how civil unions will be treated. Marriages are far more likely to be respected by others than newly minted "civil unions."

If you are married, you can get divorced in any country in which you are a resident. But if countries disrespect civil unions, there is no way to recognise or end the relationship other than filing for divorce in places allowing civil unions, such as the US state of Vermont. This has already created problems for some couples who now have no way to terminate their legal commitment made in Vermont. Most couples who have registered as civil unions in Vermont have popped over from other US states or Canada, but cannot "divorce" unless they have lived in Vermont or in another country that recognises same sex relationships for a required period.

Given that same sex relationships are often made up of two financially independent individuals, there will be pressure for even easier divorce since the problem of financial dependency will be reduced.

Frequently, we fill out forms that ask us whether we are married or single. People joined in a civil union don't fit into either category. Should partners be classed as single because they are not married, or will forms need to be altered with an additional category for a minority of couples in the gay community who choose to formalise their relationship through a civil union? People in civil unions should be able to identify themselves as a single family unit, but misrepresenting oneself on official documents can be considered fraud, carrying potential criminal penalties.

Even if there were no substantive differences in the way the law treated marriages and civil unions, the fact that a civil union remains a separate status primarily as an alternative to marriage for gay people represents real and powerful inequality. We should not kid ourselves that a separate institution just for gay people is equality even if it is seen to be more politically achievable.

Yet in this debate, little attention has been given to the differences between lesbian and gay couples. Research has shown that these couples differ in terms of their expected length of survivorship, rates of sexual interaction, fidelity and care of children. Making provision for civil unions is not making same sex couples equal to marriage, but is making two types of relationships equivalent to marriage without the equality.

Yet why the two bills? Why not combine them into one, as was the original plan? As it stands, the Civil Union Bill will not provide additional legal equivalence as this bill aims to provide couples with a mechanism to recognise and register their relationship. There will be no legal benefits from being in a Civil Union, as all legal benefits will be extended to unmarried couples with the passing of the Omnibus bill and extend to all unmarried couples, including those outside a civil union.

Many see societies legislating civil unions are societies heading down the aisle towards same-sex marriage. Maybe that's the real aim of the Civil Union Bill. The Green Party has said it supports the Civil Union Bill as a precursor to same-sex marriage. Therefore, those arguing for sustaining opposite-sex marriage must also think more carefully about the implications of proposing marriage-equivalent civil unions.

It is going to be a bigger debate than the Prostitution Reform Bill ever was.

Big News will be back in the New Year with more on these bills


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