New Zealand's parliament on Thursday narrowly approved a bill that recognizes civil unions between unwed gay and straight couples but stops short of legalizing same-sex marriages. Cheering and clapping broke out in the normally staid chamber when the house speaker announced that the 120-member body had voted 65-55 in favor of the bill. Outside the parliamentary building, several hundred people rallied in support of the legislation.
The new law, which takes effect on May 1, gives unmarried couples the same rights as wedded ones, including child custody, property rights, and tax, welfare, and retirement benefits. The bill also allows civil union partners to be buried in the same plot of land--something banned under current law. "Civil union offers an alternative to those [couples] unable to marry or who prefer not to marry," Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope told parliament during the final stage of the debate on Thursday.
Supporters of the bill have stressed that the new law would not permit same-sex marriages, and Benson-Pope said it "does not change or undermine marriage, or pose any danger to the family." Still, conservatives had dubbed the legislation the "Gay Marriage Law" and said it would degrade the meaning of marriage. They claimed the bill was the first step toward recognizing same-sex marriages.
During Thursday's debate, New Zealand First lawmaker Dail Jones said marriage "can only be the relationship of a man and a woman with the view to having children." But gay lawmaker Tim Barnett said that passing the law meant that "the state will have recognized that love between two men or two women is invaluable to society." Benson-Pope predicted that opposition to the bill would "quietly evaporate" now that it was passed and time would show it hadn't caused "the sky doesn't fall in."
Openly gay conservation minister Chris Carter, who is planning a civil union with his partner, Peter Kaiser, as soon as the law is implemented, told parliament that history was being made. "Today I sense tremendous joy and enthusiasm," he said before the vote. "We will have an opportunity we have always been denied."