A national interfaith forum has agreed to a statement that New Zealand has "no state religion" - but only as a basis for further public debate.
A draft statement that also asks schools to teach about all religions was amended slightly at the forum in Hamilton yesterday.
But attempts by the Destiny Church, the Exclusive Brethren and the evangelical Vision Network to change the statement to say that New Zealand is a Christian country were unsuccessful.
Instead, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres acknowledged that the statement needed further debate around the country before being finalised.
Prime Minister Helen Clark will now present the slightly amended draft to an Asia-Pacific interfaith dialogue at Waitangi in May as a "starting point" for a national debate.
The mission and ecumenical secretary of the Methodist Church, John Roberts, said the forum of about 100 delegates from various religions could not "own" the statement by themselves.
Responses to the Herald, after an earlier version of the statement was published on Saturday, ran four to one in favour of the view that New Zealand is still a Christian country.
Christians dropped from 60.8 per cent of the population in 2001 to 51.2 per cent at last year's Census, but were still 10 times as numerous as all other religions combined (5.1 per cent).
Those professing no religion rose from 29.6 per cent to 32.2 per cent, and 13.3 per cent refused to answer the question.
Destiny Church Pastor Manuel Renata told the forum that Christianity was the religion of the British Queen and the Maori King and was therefore the "state religion".
"We have to stand for our heritage," he said later. "I drive on the same side of the road as in Britain, I drink tea, I wear a suit. Where do those things come from? They come from a heritage that I'm very proud of. So, too, with my Christianity."
He said Destiny members would make their views heard at Waitangi in May.
Vision Network director Glyn Carpenter said that although New Zealand had no "state religion" legally, Christianity was the national religion in a de facto sense because of our history, the continued numerical predominance of Christians and the fact that our laws were based on Christian moral principles. United Future MP Gordon Copeland suggested that the statement should say that Christianity "continues to play a formative role in the development of New Zealand in terms of the nation's identity, culture, beliefs, institutions and values".
To say only that it had done so in the past, as in the draft, "implies a diminution of the importance of Christianity in the nation and I don't think there is any evidence that that is true".
Victoria University religious studies professor Paul Morris, who drafted the original statement, did not accept these arguments but offered the Christian objectors a change in a clause requiring schools to teach about all the world's religions.
He suggested that religions should be taught "in a manner that reflects the community of which the school is a part".