New Zealand's parliament is poised to pass a controversial bill giving legal recognition to same-sex and de facto relationships.
By Angie Knox
In New Zealand
Two major amendments to the Civil Union Bill, including a call for the bill to be put to a public referendum, were voted down on Wednesday, paving the way for its passing.
The bill has stirred a passionate debate on homosexuality, and, if passed, will come into law in April 2005.
Prime Minister Helen Clark's centre-left Labour government has made the Civil Union Bill a conscience vote.
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It needs 61 votes in the 120-seat parliament to pass the legislation. The bill passed its second reading last week with 65 votes to 55.
The government says the Civil Union Bill is necessary to meet the requirements of the 1993 Human Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination.
Currently, gay and de facto couples who cannot, or do not wish to, marry have no legal protection for their relationship.
The new bill would allow these couples to formally register their relationship as a civil union. The government plans to enact a separate bill to give civil union couples similar rights to married couples.
David Benson-Pope, the bill's sponsoring minister, said it was not a question of being politically correct.
"It is about doing the correct thing - period. Saying no to civil unions is to say that it's OK to discriminate against people who choose for whatever reason not to marry, or who in fact, cannot marry," he told parliament.
But opponents of the Civil Union Bill have accused the government of trying to undermine the status of marriage.
Most opposition MPs from the main centre-right National Party and the smaller Act Party have voted against the bill. One National MP, Nick Smith, told parliament the legislation was a gay marriage bill in drag.
Another MP in the same party, Brian Connell, said: "The fact around this bill is that it's about homosexual marriage. And the overwhelming view of the people of New Zealand is that they don't want a bar of that."
All eight MPs in the United Future Party, which supports the minority Labour government in confidence and money supply votes, have also rejected the bill. One of the party's MPs has been on a fast in protest against the proposed legislation.
Outside parliament, feelings on the bill have been running high and the pressure on MPs has been intense.
A jar of excrement was left outside the electoral office of Mr Benson-Pope. An openly gay Labour MP, Tim Barnett, received a castration kit through the post.
A parliamentary select committee received a record 6,419 submissions on the draft legislation; most opposed the Civil Union Bill.
Opposition to the bill has been spearheaded by the churches.
Last week the Catholic Church - which is deeply opposed to any form of homosexual union - took the unprecedented step of urging its parishioners to consider how their MPs voted on the Civil Union Bill when deciding who to vote for in the next general election, due to be held in 2005.
The fast-growing fundamentalist Destiny Church, which has political ambitions, has sent out a similar message to its members.
Destiny's charismatic leader, Brian Tamaki, rallied 5,000 black-shirted supporters in a march on parliament in August in protest against the Civil Union Bill, which the church says undermines morality and the sanctity of marriage.
Mr Tamaki has said the bill represents all that is wrong with New Zealand society, and that the government is trying to legitimise an abnormal, unnatural sexual practice.
But there has also been strong backing for the bill. Two gay MPs and the world's only transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, from the Labour Party, have been joined by opposition MPs, including a Catholic, arguing in support of the bill. All nine MPs from the Green Party have lent their support to the proposed legislation.
The lobby group, Campaign for Civil Unions, says a series of public opinion polls show the majority of New Zealanders support the Civil Union Bill.
The group says opposition to the bill has been dominated by a small number of conservative groups. It says the bill, if passed, will give same-sex and de facto couples basic rights, such as being allowed hospital visits to their partners, or a say in the funeral arrangements for their partners, without having to prove that their relationship is valid.
Parliament is due to vote on the Civil Union Bill on Thursday. A related bill, the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill, which amends existing legislation to give civil union couples the same rights as married couples, is expected to be considered early next year.