By RUTH BERRY
Opponents thunder it threatens the sanctity of marriage while supporters claim the law must account for changes in the way people live and their concomitant human rights.
In some ways the debate over the Civil Union Bill appears to echo the age-old creation v evolution argument.
"The cornerstone of any nation is family," Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki told supporters of his march on Parliament. "And the cornerstone of any family is marriage. You cannot touch what God has ordained. You cannot touch the sanctity of marriage."
"The intention is that civil union will be a new legal entity, designed for couples in the 21st century," Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope has retorted.
About one in five New Zealanders with a partner - about 330,000 people - were choosing to live in a relationship other than marriage. That includes about 10,000 (a figure believed to be under-reported) living in same-sex relationships. It was "sad", said Mr Benson-Pope, that some people could not accept the lifestyle choices of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders.
Thus the debate has been characterised as one of morality, with both sides also claiming the high ground when it comes to protecting the family unit into the future.
Supporters argue formal, state-sanctioned recognition of a wider variety of relationships will help bind and protect existing families - however constituted - to the benefit of children. Opponents say the conventional "mother, father, children" family will be undermined.
Act MP Stephen Franks, deputy chair of the parliamentary committee hearing submissions on the bill, says it is the symbolism of the bill - rather than what it will actually change - that has inflamed passions. The bulk of the submissions have been against the bill, running the anti-family argument. Those in favour see it as a great leap forward in terms of gay rights in particular. Neither is in a legislative sense accurate, he argues.
Despite all the hype around the Civil Union bill it really only does one thing, which is to enable same-sex and heterosexual couples to register a civil union, spell out who can enter into one and who can conduct the ceremony. There is nothing identifiable which can be seen to encourage an increase in sole, step or same-sex parenting, he says. And it's clearly happening now, regardless of the law.
Secondly, if the accompanying Relationships (Statutory References) Bill is passed, there will be no legal differences - in terms of entitlements, rights and obligations - between marriages, civil unions and de facto relationships anyway.
It is the latter bill - which so far commands greater Parliamentary support - which places on a level legal playing field the status of all those relationships.
While the piece of paper on which a civil union is recorded may have symbolic significance, it confers no accompanying legal rights, he says.
The vast majority of people it could potentially affect are those in heterosexual relationships who are now given an alternative to marriage.
Research has shown a number of de facto couples are uncomfortable with marriage because of what they believe it connotes; for some that is the religious "taint". But this group has not led an active campaign and the right to a civil union has primarily been driven by proponents of gay rights.
These proponents have been split on whether to advocate for the right to "marry" or for something different, like a civil union, which does not carry the associations that go with the institution of marriage.
This has helped the Government to make the political compromise - which it wants to highlight to try to placate conservatives - allowing same-sex couples formal recognition of their relationships, but which denies them the right to "marry" under the Marriage Act , as pointed out in the bill's explanatory note.
Providing a mechanism for solemnisation of those relationships is "part of the Government's objective of creating a positive human rights culture".
Despite the intention to move further along the anti-discrimination road, however: "The Bill sets out the requirements for civil union in the form of a stand-alone Act to reinforce Parliament's intention that marriage is available solely to a man and a woman."
"The Civil Union Bill will not amend the Marriage Act 1955," Mr Benson-Pope stressed during its first reading. "The social, religious and traditional values associated with marriage will remain."
The bill's critics claim this is a smokescreen and there is no real difference between a civil union and a marriage.
The country's first openly lesbian MP, Marilyn Waring, told the select committee there was still a difference and the bill was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. "Equivalence is not equality," the Massey University professor in public policy said.
Prime Minister Helen Clark is one of the few in Parliament to have advocated a personal preference for civil union. She has suggested those opposed to the bill on sanctity of marriage grounds are trying to have it both ways when they then say a civil union and marriage are the same.
"A number of people who are making that allegation are also at pains to say that marriage is something very special and more than just legal recognition."
It would appear the definition of marriage is all in the eye of the beholder.