The Catholic Church yesterday made an 11th-hour attempt to block the Civil Union Bill, which is due to be put to a final vote in Parliament this week.

The country's nine Catholic bishops sent a letter to all their churches setting out their reasons for opposing the bill.
The bishops said the bill would erode the "special and unique position" of marriage and the family in society, and that MPs who said it was necessary for promoting the civil rights of all New Zealanders were putting forward a spurious argument.

"This is a fallacy. Civil rights, such as inheritance, next-of-kin status, benefits and grants, can be ensured by other appropriate legislation without any need to give same-sex and de facto relationships the same legal and social standing as marriage," they said.

"As your bishops, we ask you to pray earnestly about this matter.

"In all conscience we found ourselves obliged to take the unprecedented step of urging you to inform yourselves of how your own Member of Parliament, and the list MPs of political parties, have voted on the bill and to make this one of the things you take into account when you cast your vote in next year's general election."

It was a clear message not to vote for any MP who supports the bill, and was apparently intended to make the MPs think about the consequences.

National MP Richard Worth, who is drafting an alternative to the bill, is proposing "civil relationships" instead of civil unions.

"In contrast to civil unions, a civil relationship will be available to any two people wishing to register their relationship, including family members," he said.

He gave as an example two elderly sisters who lived together and were financially dependent on each other but were unable to register their relationship.

Mr Worth's bill also provides for a binding referendum on the issue, which is also being proposed by New Zealand First as an amendment to the bill.

Act MP Stephen Franks said he would support Mr Worth's amendments.

"Labour claimed their bill had nothing to do with sexuality, but could not explain why any two kin living together could not register," he said. "They desperately maintained the fiction that civil union was not gay marriage."

Mr Worth and Mr Franks voted against the bill on its second reading last week, when it passed 65-55.

It has to pass its committee and third reading stages this week before becoming law.