After months of emotional submissions and some bitter protest, a bill to legalise same-sex marriage appears likely to pass another hurdle with barely a dent in its political support.
A dozen MPs indicated their vote in favour was limited to the first stage of the bill and they would reconsider after hearing the debates at select committee. With the second reading of the bill likely to be debated this evening, a straw poll of those MPs found only who said he would no longer vote for it.
National MP for Rangitikei Ian McKelvie, who backed the bill at the first reading, said he had not been convinced there was any reason to change the historical definition of marriage.
Several more MPs said they were consulting their electorates until the last minute.
The 21,500 submissions on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill - 2900 of which were unique - presented a more divided picture than in Parliament, where MPs backed the bill by a two-to-one margin at the first reading.
Many of the large religious groups which led the opposition to the law change were amazed at the speed with which the legislation was moving and the scale of the change.
One theologian said it could contribute to the dilution of marriage into a "faint nothingness".
The private member's bill was pulled from the ballot in August, and gay couples are likely to be able to marry by August this year. The bill would also legalise adoptions by gay couples, something opponents say will slip into law "on the bill's coat-tails" without proper public discussion.
The director of the interdenominational religious group New Zealand Christian Network, Glyn Carpenter, said he was staggered and upset at the speed of the change.
"We are talking about a fundamental shift in terms of society's attitude to marriage. I'm surprised there isn't more of a fuss being created about how this process has been handled.
"It is not a gay marriage bill. It is a definition amendment bill. We are changing the definition of marriage."
The Society for Promotion of Community Standards, which has railed against social changes such as abortion reform and homosexual law reform since the 1970s, could not conceive of a change to marriage laws.
President John Mills said this week that gay marriage was an oxymoron and described gay couples as sterile.
The select committee considering the bill quelled some religious concerns by emphasising ministers would not risk breaching human rights law refusing to marry gay couples. There was still some concern independent celebrants would not be protected, and some legal experts told the committee this issue "should not be left to the courts".
For many churches, especially Pacific congregations, the bill goes against their belief that marriage is a covenant between one man, one woman and God, for the purpose of procreation.
The Presbyterian Church, which 350,000 New Zealanders identified with, decided to oppose the law change after 75 per cent of its general assembly said it did not support same-sex marriage. Moderator Ray Coster said it was not the role of the Church to legislate for marriage, but it was important that its voice was heard in the debate.
"We are simply a voice that is saying ... please listen to those who still want to uphold the historic Judeo-Christian value as has been understood over many years."
But for a majority of submitters, gay marriage was overdue in New Zealand. Proponents argued the state was discriminating in restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, a policy which had influenced high rates of mental illness among young gay New Zealanders. Civil unions were "parallel, but not equal" to marriage, submitters argued.
Select committee hearings in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch heard highly personal submissions and stories of depression, suicide, family disputes, lost faith, coming out and finding love. A minority of churches argued for the right to marry gay couples.
St Andrew's on the Terrace parish council member Ellen Murray told a select committee hearing: "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."
Many saw the change as part of an inevitable social shift already in progress in the United States, Europe and South America. The bill's sponsor, Labour's Louisa Wall, cited President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage as an influence on her putting the legislation in the ballot.
While opponents felt it had been rushed into law, some supporters said that immediacy was important. Elderly gay couples who had lived secret lives before homosexual law reform pleaded to be able to tie the knot before a partner died.
The committee noted that the bill had prompted unprecedented political involvement from young people, submissions revealing a younger generation mostly untroubled by the law change, and in many cases embarrassed that gay marriage was not already a reality in country with a proud progressive history.
Half the National Party caucus voted against the bill at first reading, but its youth wing overwhelmingly supported it. All eight political parties' youth branches made a joint pledge of support this week.
Voices from both sides of the debate
Afraid to be different
I first held a blade to my skin at age 11. Eleven. By the time I was 22 I'd been waging a war against myself for half my life. I can't imagine how many hundreds of scars I have ... I've been different for as long as I remember ... I wasn't teased. I was a cute, intelligent kid with a bunch of friends. Everybody liked me. Nobody knew.
I was afraid of my difference. The society I live in still tells me I am different on a tangible level. It's not just in my imagination. There's a law for the general population and then there's a law for the gay population.
LGBT young people are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide. I was that four-times-more-likely. I don't want to live in a society where cute, intelligent kids waste half their lives in utter torment because they don't feel they are as valuable as everyone else.
- Frith Hughes
Intended for procreation
This is not a debate about homosexuality. Our stance on marriage is not a denigration of persons who are homosexual.
We believe that the term "marriage" signifies a particular reality; that of a public, committed, permanent and loving relationship between one man and one woman, a relationship which has natural orientation towards the procreation of new human life.
A same sex marriage can be loving and committed. It can never, however, meet the other essential and defining characteristic of marriage, the sexual difference and complementarity.
- New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference
A father's disappointment
I was 21 when I came out to my parents. When I first talked to [Dad] he said he was disappointed. Not disappointed in me, but disappointed in the things he thought I would miss out on. Disappointed that I wouldn't experience things that any father assumes their son will get to experience. As it stands right now, he has a point. I technically can't get married. And all because I am gay. ... So please, give me the right to get married. Anything else just won't do.
- Matty McLean (TVNZ reporter)
Marriage is becoming fuzzy and ill-defined. We need to recover a stronger sense of commitment and loyalty in marriage. The state has a strong interest in seeking to achieve that, especially in relation to the raising of children. The proposed amendment will not of itself cause marriage to disappear into a faint nothingness. But it will make what is becoming a fuzzy institution fuzzier still.
- Laurie Guy, theologian
Quality of relationship
Nowhere in scripture is the concept of loving, committed same-sex, relationships envisaged. One cannot find a biblical text on this subject any more than one can find something about nuclear bombs or genetic modification. Reference must be made to deeper biblical principles.
Such principles include love for God and neighbour. Such love encompasses the marriage relationship between a man and a woman, and may be found also in a same-sex context. The ethical criterion is to do with the quality of the relationship, not the orientation of the partners.
- Bishop Richard Randerson, former Dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral
Same options for all
The commission supports the bill. It considers that same-sex couples and transgender people should have the same options for official recognition of their relationships as all other New Zealanders.
- Human Rights Commission
2898 Unique submissions
220 Heard by committee