Sweep the parliamentary chimneys. Ready the rainbow smoke. The marriage equality bill is almost over the line. The four National MPs who swung the other way on Wednesday night, changing their vote from an aye at the first reading to a noe at the second, put barely a dent in the majority, and legislation to make same-sex marriage lawful could be enacted within a month.

One MP observed that there was "less noise" in the debate over this bill than there had been over law changes in recent decades that made homosexuality legal and introduced civil unions. Most of that can be put down to a shifting centre of gravity in social values. But it also has something to do with the haphazard, incoherent and at times semi-literate campaign mounted by the bill's opponents.

The scare-mongering that suffused so much of it could only have tipped those tottering on the fence towards the pro-change camp. So deranged was the flyer being distributed around Auckland in the days leading up to the vote, with its shriek that "costs from various illnesses (syphilis, mental illness, Aids etc) will bring about more medical expenses to be covered by our tax", and warning words such as mother, father, husband and wife are being "banned ... throughout the world" that a conspiracy theorist might wonder whether it was conjured up by marriage equality advocates to discredit their opponents.

One of the MPs who voted against the bill, National's Chester Borrows -the most deliciously named parliamentarian since Wyatt Creech - told the House that some of his colleagues who'd "set out thinking they will vote against this bill" had subsequently "changed their mind because of the way they have been treated by Christians, supposedly worshipping in their daily lives and witness a loving God". The lobbying by fundamentalists, said Borrows, a committed Christian, had poisoned the debate. "If they profess to worship that God, then it is a different God who I worship ... because they have shown nothing of that love - that all-encompassing love - in the way that they have conducted themselves."


The speech of the night came from another National MP and man of faith (a former lay Presbyterian minister, indeed), Chris Auchinvole. Only minutes earlier a series of apparently random words had emerged from his mouth in speaking to the bill on public holidays and "Mondayisation". Here, however, he was a silver-tongued star.

Not only did he manage to use the word "eschatological", to describe those who viewed the bill as "a slippery slope leading to our ultimate demise as a nation and as a civilisation"; not only did he manage a shout out to his wife of 41 years, "a red-headed West Coast girl from a West Coast aristocratic family", he also cracked a series of genuinely funny jokes, and pulled off a creditable Scottish accent. Auchinvole's best line was heartfelt. "I now realise that this bill seeks to put first something that critics have accused it of undermining, and that is the family."

Congratulations, then, to Auchinvole, and all those who support Louisa Wall's necessary and fair bill. Just don't mistake it for a bold progressive change. A bold progressive change would see marriage removed completely from the auspices of a secular state, erased from the statute books entirely. Among the most moving and persuasive arguments in favour of the bill has been appeal to the power of love above all. But the idea that you can't have love without marriage is about as convincing as the idea that, well, you can't have a horse without a carriage.

Let couples marry as they please, according to whatever faith or belief system they bow to. But a genuinely secular state has no place in the finery and stresses of the weird and often wonderful ritual of a wedding. The state should limit its rule to authenticating a union - be it called a civil union or something else. But not "marriage" - for that word has much too much baggage.

Take marriage out of the law and there would be no need for the weird over-compensating amendments in the current bill that spell out that religious celebrants need not ask a bride to kiss a bride.

Rainbow smoke is unlikely to impress the new guy at the Vatican. His assessment of gay marriage is that it amounts to a manoeuvre by "the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God". What a shame. But let the Catholic Church, and all churches, debate these things among themselves. Get God out of the state.

In New Zealand's great tradition of forward-thinking, socially progressive change, marriage should be divorced from the state. No, let's not say divorced, let's say decoupled. Marriage should be set free.

Debate on this article is now closed.