This week the National MP for Hunua, Paul Hutchison, made a telling comment about Louisa Wall's bill to legalise same-sex marriage. Some churches in his rural electorate had been quick to tell him in no uncertain terms what they thought about the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, he said. "But I was quite amazed that quite a few individuals ... from mainstream churches, businesspeople and farmers don't seem to be stressed by this particular one." His comment suggests society is now prepared to sanction this step. In concert with this, the bill is expected today to comfortably pass its first hurdle in Parliament.
Parliamentarians' verdict on the bill will be delivered through a conscience vote, not along party lines. But although they will take personal positions, MPs must be conscious that they are deciding this issue on behalf of the people of New Zealand. Public feelings run deep, with a substantial number of people adamant that marriage should remain a state that only heterosexual couples can enter. Eight years ago, the strength of that sentiment meant that MPs would offer only the legal rights and obligations of a civil union, not the full recognition of marriage.
Much has changed in the relatively short period since then. Ten countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Africa, with some parts of the United States, now allow same-sex marriage. This is not a subject where New Zealand is ploughing a fresh field. And, as every MP surely knew at the time of the passage of the civil union law, that was only a step towards extending the rights of marriage. The surprisingly small number of civil unions tells its own story on the acceptability of that concept to the homosexual community. Gays want society to recognise their commitment as no less valid than marriage.
Last week, the Human Rights Commission, unsurprisingly, effectively endorsed Ms Wall's bill. Legal equality depended on New Zealanders having the right to found and form a family regardless of sexual orientation, it said. This was consistent with the line taken in 2004, when it said that it was disappointed that Parliament, rather than creating civil unions, did not simply amend the Marriage Act to make it available to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
That, however, cuts little ice with those who believe that familiar social standards are being abandoned, and that marriage has always been understood to be a union of a man and a woman. They believe the very concept of marriage would be undermined if it was not preserved for heterosexuals. They also wonder, with some justification, about the implications of passing Ms Wall's bill. Does it mean that the more problematic issue of gay adoption would be effectively settled at the same time? Certainly, the Human Rights Commission has no qualms about linking the two issues. "Formal legal equality around the rights to found and form a family requires both marriage equality and adoption equality," it says.
Marriage is a cultural statement. Registry or "civil" marriages long ago removed marriage from the exclusively spiritual realm. Churches retain under this bill the right to solemnise, or to decline to bestow, the sacred nature of marriage as they see it. That is how it should be. Yet it is clear that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, want more than the commitment provided by a civil union contract.
Previously, society has hesitated to go that far. Now, it appears a majority of people are happy for those of the same sex to have their love and commitment recognised by the term marriage, with all the rights, meanings and obligations that entails. Clearly the old institution has some life left in it.
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