A new bill aimed at guaranteeing that nonmarried couples have the same rights as their wedded peers will not make gay marriage legal in New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Monday. "The government is not--underline not--changing the Marriage Act. That will remain as an option only for heterosexual couples," Clark said, seeking to defuse conservative criticism of proposed civil union legislation that lawmakers are set to vote on this week. The long-delayed bill creates a new form of legal relationship--a registered civil union--that can apply to same-sex and heterosexual couples. The proposed law will extend to unmarried partners the same rights enjoyed by married couples in dozens of areas, ranging from child custody and property rights to tax, welfare, and retirement benefits. It will even allow for civil union partners to be buried in the same plot of land--something banned under current law. "Nobody should be disadvantaged," Clark told radio station NewstalkZB on Monday. But, she added, "Marriage is only for heterosexuals."
Under the proposed law, the only difference between a civil union and a marriage will be the relationship's legal name, Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope said last week. He said the government intends to remove discrimination based on marital status from more than 100 laws covering commerce, education, health, taxation, and social assistance. The bill will be tabled in parliament on Monday, and lawmakers will cast a conscience vote on Wednesday or Thursday. Under a conscience vote lawmakers are freed from strict party rules to vote as their consciences dictate. New Zealand's two main parties, Labour and the opposition National Party, are divided on the proposed new law, but Benson-Pope believes they have enough support in parliament to pass the bill into law.