New Zealand's parliament is to consider a proposal to give gay and lesbian couples the legal rights akin to those enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. The planned legislation would enable same-sex partners to enter into a civil union by which they could pledge a commitment to one
another and officially register their joining, said Tim Barnett, a lawmaker in the governing Labor Party, on Thursday. Under the proposed law, heterosexual couples can also opt for civil union rather than a traditional marriage. Officials said a civil union would require couples only to submit paperwork
and pay a fee rather than going through a ceremony with witnesses and a priest, celebrant, or registry official. If couples separated, the union could be dissolved after two years in the same way as a marriage.
Bishop Peter Cullinane of the Roman Catholic Church said civil unions were a smoke screen for the sanctioning of gay marriages. However, Barnett said other countries have passed similar laws to end
discrimination against gays and lesbians. With its present marriage laws, New Zealand was "very vulnerable" to complaints under human rights laws, he said. The bill has been drafted but has not yet been introduced in parliament as officials check whether other laws that recognize only married couples may need to be amended. Officials could put no date on when the bill would be introduced. Observers said it was likely the government-supported measure would gain majority support in parliament.