As New Zealand’s Parliament moved last week to adopt legislation covering both same-sex and opposite-sex civil unions, a clear majority of New Zealanders polled still opposed explicit same-sex marriage rights. Those opinion polls convinced gay rights proponents that taking that last step across the boundary into full marriage equality was not politically feasible.

The Civil Union Bill that was enacted does not specify the rights and responsibilities of civil union partners. For strategic purposes, the measure’s Labour Party sponsors decided to put forward a separate bill, the Relationships Bill, to be voted on early in 2005, that will specify the changes that must be made in other New Zealand statutes in order to extend to civil union partners all the rights and responsibilities of spouses. The purpose of this bill is to establish the qualifications for civil unions, the procedures for entering and dissolving them, and the role of government in authorizing the performance of civil unions and recording their formation and dissolution.

Churches will not be required to perform civil unions, but may do so.

The bill allows couples as young as age 16 to enter into civil unions, although for those under 18, consent from parents or legal guardians is required, though there is a judicial by-pass for special cases.

The law will go into effect on April 26, 2005, giving Parliament the necessary time to consider and adopt the Relationships Bill. However, the Civil Union Bill already provides what many consider among the most important aspects of legal marriage that has been denied to same-sex couples up to now—a legal mechanism for “divorce” by providing that civil unions will be dissolved under the provisions of the statute already governing divorce, making available a process for distributing assets and deciding custody and visitation rights regarding children from a relationship.

Passage of the bill was a particular triumph for Tim Barnett, a longtime gay member of the Parliament who worked patiently to shape the bill and secure the necessary political support over many years. As a member of the Parliament’s Justice Committee, he played a leading role in conducting numerous public hearings and formulating the final committee report in support of the bill.

—Arthur S. Leonard

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