Gay and lesbian couples celebrated as New Zealand’s parliament voted to give them legal recognition through civil unions, labelled by opponents as “gay marriage in drag”.
Same-sex and de facto couples will be able to formally register their relationships from April next year. Marriage remains a separate entity.
Months of efforts by opponents to defeat the Civil Union Bill or put it to a referendum came to nought when it passed its final reading by conscience vote 65 to 55, the same margin as a preliminary vote last week.
Hundreds of activists from both sides rallied outside the parliament in Wellington in anticipation of the vote.
The issue has divided New Zealand – with opinion polls showing equal numbers for and against civil unions.
“Today I sense tremendous joy and enthusiasm. We will have an opportunity we have always been denied,” said Conservation Minister Chris Carter, who plans to enter a civil union with his male partner.
“It gives the simplest of things – the formal recognition and respect by our laws for the individual choice of New Zealanders,” said David Benson Pope, the minister in charge of the bill.
Social conservatives and some religious groups have called civil unions an attack on the institution of marriage and social engineering by the Labour government.
“This bill is really, very simply, a present to the coterie of homosexuals and lesbians who surround the Right Honourable (Prime Minister) Helen Clark,” New Zealand First MP Dail Jones said.
National MP Nick Smith said the legislation was effectively a gay marriage law.
“People who try to pretend that relationships between men and men are the same as between men and women are wrong,” he said.
Mr Smith said natural law was more important than parliamentary law.
Christians for Civil Union member Margaret Mayman said today she and her partner Clare Brockett were talking about entering a civil union under the new law.
“It is just a fantastic day for us and makes you really proud to be a New Zealander, in the sense of feeling at home and equal in this country,” she said.
“I think it’s going to strengthen the resolve of people who really respect and honour traditional family values,” church leader Brian Tamaki said.
“You’re going to see a lot more people be a lot more active. I believe the church has had a wake-up call.”
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