A bill to legalise same-sex marriage is likely to be amended to explicitly state that churches would not be forced to marry same-sex couples.
A parliamentary select committee considering the legislation was flooded with submissions from religious groups who felt a law change would make it unlawful to turn away gay, lesbian or transgender couples who wanted to be married.
The bill's sponsor, Labour MP Louisa Wall, has repeatedly said that she wanted churches to retain their freedom of religion and expression.
She felt that the Marriage Act's provision that churches were authorised, but not obliged to marry people was sufficient protection, and noted that this stance had been reinforced by the Human Rights Commission.
But differing legal opinions and growing uncertainty amid some religious groups has prompted the committee to consider a clarification in the bill.
Masterton Baptist Church minister Scott Lelievre accentuated the concern of some Christian leaders yesterday. "If this goes forward then churches will be required to open their premises to gay marriages. I guess if we have to go to jail then we have to [go to] jail. There's a long and honourable history of Christians going to jail, so we would not be the first."
Victoria University Faculty of Law professor Bill Atkin recommended that the committee add a "conscience clause" to the legislation.
"Given that there has been some discussion in the media as well as around this table there should be ... some redrafting done to make it quite clear that people in the interests of freedom of religion do not have to perform a marriage which they object to on the grounds of their religious belief."
Professor Atkin said there was a strong public consensus that this was what the bill intended, but it was important to make it explicit in law.
He recommended a narrowly defined exemption for mainstream churches from anti-discrimination legislation.
Independent marriage celebrants, on the other hand, should not be exempt and should be bound by anti-discrimination law.
Christians for Marriage Equality spokeswoman Margaret Mayman pointed out to the committee that gay couples were unlikely to choose conservative clergymen to marry them.
Some churches contended that their freedom of religion was breached by the current law because it prevented them from marrying gay couples.
St Andrew's on the Terrace parish council member Ellen Murray said: "At the moment, much as we don't want to treat same-sex couples differently, we have to.
"When our minister acts for the state, she is forced to discriminate, offering civil union or marriage to a man and a woman, and just civil union to same-sex couples."
Poster boys' feel inferior citizens
The "poster boys" for civil union in New Zealand have told Parliament that denying them the right to marry made them feel less socially accepted than murderers.
John Joliff and Des Smith, the first couple to register for a civil union after the law was changed in 2005, appeared before a select committee considering the legalisation of same-sex marriage yesterday.
Mr Joliff said the law said their relationship of more than 25 years was "ordinary" but the law had treated them in a "less than ordinary manner".
He said their decision to get a civil union was a compromise, and their inability to get married made them feel like inferior citizens.
"Scott Watson, a convicted murderer, got married in prison shortly before our ceremony," he said."What status does that send about the status of our civil union? Are we less acceptable in New Zealand than a [convicted] murderer?"
Many submitters, and some MPs, have suggested that civil unions gave the same rights as marriage and "should be enough" for gay couples.
But gay and lesbian submitters yesterday said this made them feel like second-class citizens.
Legalise Love Aotearoa said making same-sex marriage legal would send a message of inclusion to homosexual teenagers, and would help change their disproportionate rate of bullying, depression and suicide.By Isaac Davison @Isaac_Davison Email Isaac