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Civil unions and same-sex marriages in New Zealand

Year 2004/5: Civil unions created

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Introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples:

David Benson-Pope, the Associate Justice Minister of New Zealand is the lead sponsor of the proposed Civil Union and Relationships (Statutory References) bill. The bill would grant same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples and common-law couples the same rights, privileges and obligations. If passed, then opposite-sex couples will continue to be able to marry; same-sex couples will be able to enter into civil unions. The bill was given first reading in parliament in 2003-JUN, and was sent to a select committee for public feedback.

Benson-Pope criticize religious conservatives from the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant wings of Christianity who opposed the legislation.

  • Roman Catholic Cardinal Tom Williams criticized government policies which he said were turning the country into a "moral wasteland."

  • Destiny Church, an Evangelical Protestant congregation is led by a motorcycle riding televangelist, Brian Tamaki. They have launched a national protest called "Enough is Enough." School children from the church were scheduled to be bussed to a rally in front of the government buildings on 2004-AUG-23 to protest the bill. Bensen-Pope commented in a public speech: "That the Destiny protests - bussing schoolchildren dressed in black shirts to rallies where they are clearly told it is all right to hate - came in the same week as Jewish headstones were smashed in Wellington was a coincidence of timing. [The Destiny protest] does, however, remind us of some of the darker days of history. This intolerance is pretty scary. More so because it is being taught by a church." He compared the discrimination promoted by the Destiny Church protestors with the treatment of a young Australian girl, Eve van Grafhorst, who suffered from AIDS and who was not allowed to play with other children in Kindergarten unless she wore a plastic visor. She and her family emigrated to New Zealand where she later died from AIDS. Benson-Pope said: "What happened to Eve was wrong and New Zealanders said so. These Kiwi values are the exact antidote for a growing intolerance from some within our society - an intolerance that I must say is more and more using language and tactics imported from other countries." 2

  • Letters to the editor of an Auckland newspaper commented on a local public demonstration. One letter, in an apparent reference to the black shirts, a Nazi Germany goon squad in the 1930s included: "Does anyone else feel a twinge of unease at the sight of hundreds of men and boys, dressed in black t-shirts, marching down Queen Street on Saturday and chanting 'enough is enough'?"

  • He criticized the Maxim Institute, which he described as an "extreme right-wing" group whose staff members were "inextricably linked [to]...fundamentalist American organizations." Maxim spokesperson, Scott McMurray, said that the minister's remarks were "simply an attempt to try and silence those who are opposed to the controversial legislation that he is promoting." He noted that Bensen-Pope had not provided any proof that his group is linked to American fundamentalists. Greg Fleming, managing director of Maxim, said: "This is a powerful, $40 billion government machine trying to bully and intimidate a small charitable group."  He suggested that the minister's comments were designed to take the focus off the debate's central issue - the best interests of children. Fleming said: "Marriage is the best environment in which to raise children and should be promoted and preferred in law." He challenged the minister to explain "how marginalizing marriage is a good thing for children. 3
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Text of the bill:

General policy statement:
The purpose of the Bill is to establish civil union for different and same sex couples. The Bill provides for different sex couples who want formal recognition of their relationship but for whatever reason do not wish to marry.

Providing a mechanism for same sex couples to formally solemnise their relationship is part of the Government's objective of creating a positive human rights culture. The Bill will address the current situation in which same sex couples cannot receive legal recognition of their loving and committed relationship.

The Bill provides for civil union in New Zealand, and sets out the requirements and processes to enter a civil union and for the appointment of celebrants. It also provides for registration and dissolution of civil unions. The provisions in the Bill are based on the provisions for marriage but have been modernised to reflect current law, policy, and practice. The Bill sets out the requirements for civil union in the form of a stand-alone Act to reinforce Parliament's intention that marriage is available solely to a man and a woman. The recognition of civil unions and the conferring of rights and responsibilities to civil union partners across other legislation will be addressed separately in the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill.

Summary of main measures

  • Eligibility: Two people who are of different or the same sex will be able to enter a civil union provided they are:
    • Aged 18 or over, or are aged 16 or 17 and have the consent of their guardians or the Family Court
    • Not within prohibited degrees of relationship:
  • Formalities:
    • Notice and license: A notice of intended civil union must be given to a Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. If the civil union is to be solemnised by a civil unioncelebrant or exempt body, a licence must be obtained. A licence is not required if the civil union is to be solemnised by a Registrar.
    • Civil union celebrants: The Registrar-General will appoint all civil union celebrants....Marriage celebrants may apply to become civil union celebrants if they so wish.
    • Registration: Civil unions will be registered under the Births, Deaths, and Marriages Registration Act 1995....
    • Dissolution: Civil unions will be dissolved under the Family Proceedings Act 1980.

Converting between marriage and civil union: The bill allows married opposite-sex couples to convert their marriage into a civil union. Opposite-sex couples who are in a civil union can convert their civil union into a marriage.

A large number of existing laws would be amended to replace phrases referring to marriage with similar phrases referring to "marriage or civil union." 4

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Public reactions to the proposed bill:

The public's thoughts on the proposed Civil Union Bill (CUB) and the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill (RSRB) were solicited by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee on the Civil Union Bill and the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill. Dr Alison Laurie and a team from the Gender and Women's Studies at Victoria University of Wellington analyzed 6,350 submissions on behalf of the Campaign for Civil Unions. Cameron Law, coordinator of the Campaign concluded that: "It is clear from the submissions that those opposing the bills are part of an orchestrated campaign that fits within a 'biblical literalist' or fundamentalist religious framework. The submissions against the bills are based on narrow, moralistic claims. The submissions in favor of the legislation are based on experience - direct experience - of the problems in the current legal framework."

Some data:

  • Of the "non form (standard) submissions," 459 favored the legislation; 2,794 were opposed.
  • Only 277 submissions included information on their personal experience of matters relevant to the bills. Of these, 33% supported the bills; 0.1% were opposed.
  • 2150 submissions included explicit or implicit homophobic comments.
  • Points raised in opposition to the legislation included:
    • 292 contained "slippery slope" arguments which viewed civil unions as part of a general moral decline in New Zealand that would inevitably lead to the legalization of child sexual molestation, bigamy, polygamy, bestiality, necrophilia, etc.
    • 288 described civil unions as "contrary to God's law."
    • 1,344 submissions felt that the law would be "harmful to children."
    • 474 based their opposition to same-sex couples' "inability to procreate."
    • 593 persons were generally "opposed to rights for same sex couples."
    • Many made points about marriage, which were not related to the bills.

Law concluded that: "The common theme behind the submissions against the bills is that many of them are clearly the result of an organized campaign among fringe Christian groups. They do not represent a mainstream Christian viewpoint, let alone the views of most New Zealanders. Submissions in favor of the legislation stand in stark contrast to this. They are based on the real experiences faced by ordinary people, and they stand up for human rights for all New Zealanders."

GayNZ commented that: "Those writing in support of the bills mostly used evidence to support their arguments. The main arguments in support were based on human rights, and on the concern that, in a secular society, legislation based on religious laws was unacceptable to the majority." 5,6

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Civil unions law passed in 2004-DEC:

As debate on the civil unions bill continued in Parliament, demonstrators on both sides of the issue faced each other. Supporters of the Campaign for Civil Union were present, along with the mostly Christian opposition. One of the latter's banners read: "Mum and Dad Say No to Civil Union Bull"

Meanwhile, there was disagreement in Parliament over whether the bill would authorize gay marriage. Member of Parliament (MP) Nick Smith of the National party argued it was gay marriage. So did the United Future party. Green MP Nandor Tanczos sid: "Is this gay marriage? Well, I wish it was. We wanted to amend the Marriage Act." The Labour party agreed with the Greens. Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First said that the Government claimed that the legislation would bring about "one law for all" relationships. But Peters denied that it would. He said that the legislation would treat them as second-class citizens by denying them the right to marry. Labour MP Russell Fairbrother agreed with Peters, saying: "This is a sop for the gay community." He said that the government had backed down from its original plans, because many New Zealanders were simply not ready to accept same-sex marriage.

The bill passed 65 to 55 on a "conscience vote"; legislators were not required to vote according to the wishes of their party. Reaction to the packed public gallery was mixed: supporter erupted with loud cheers. Opponents were silent. The Members of Parliament defeated an alternative bill that would have called for a national referendum.

Some comments:

  • National MP Roger Sowry said that the bill was dishonest. He would have voted in favor of gay marriage.
  • Fellow National MP, Judith Collins, agreed.
  • Cabinet minister Chris Carter said he and his gay partner had met 31 years ago and had attended many weddings of opposite-sex couples. He said: "I look forward to the chance to extend a similar invitation to commemorate my partnership. Gay people in New Zealand were hidden for a long time. Since 1986 we have become more visible ... but our families have not. It is time we brought them into the open because I believe much of the residual public discomfit with homosexual families lies not with a fault in the hearts of people, but with the simple fact that people fear and misunderstand what they don't know."
  • Pastor Brian Tamaki, leader of the Destiny Church leader said that the bill is a tragedy. "They may have seemingly won the battle, but they haven't won the war."
  • Former MP Fran Wilde, said that the tenor of the debate was "practically civilized" compared with the sometimes "sickening" talk 20 years ago.

The bill came into effect during 2005-APR. 7,8

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How you got here:

Home page > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage> SSM Menu > here

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  1. "New Zealand Christian groups oppose broadening marriage rights." Newsroom, 2000-NOV-13, at: 
  2. "Catholics, Evangelicals Targeted as 'Hate-Filled' for Opposing NZ Civil Union Legislation," LifeSite, 2004-AUG-18, at:
  3. Patrick Goodenough, "Opponents of Same-Sex 'Civil Unions' Equated with Hate-Groups," Cybercast News Service, 2004-AUG-18, at:
  4. The text of the Civil Unions bill is online at:
  5. "Report on the written submissions (Victoria University)," GayNZ, at:
  6. "Analysis: The submissions for and against Civil Unions,", 2004-DEC-03, at:
  7. Ruth Berry and Ainsley Thomson, "Passions run high before Civil Union debate ends," New Zealand Herald, 2004-DEC-10, at:
  8. "New Zealand Parliament adopts same-sex civil union law," Agence France-Presse, 2004-DEC-09, at:
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Originally posted: 2004-AUG
Latest update: 2012-AUG-29
Author: B.A. Robinson
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