The debate on same-sex marriage lacks context because its promoters have failed to take into account the equal rights already established in New Zealand law for same-sex couples.
OPINION: Everyone remembers the passing of the Civil Unions Act in late 2004 because of the publicity it generated. The Civil Unions Act was followed by a companion Relationships (Statutory References) Act in early 2005 - the Relationships Act. It was passed by Parliament without fanfare and little publicity. It has therefore been missing from this debate because its purpose and legal effects are largely unknown to New Zealanders. Yet it is of crucial importance.
So what did the Relationships Act do? It amended more then 150 acts of Parliament to add, after every reference to "marriage", the words "civil union and de facto" so there would be a complete and perfect legal equality between marriage, civil unions and heterosexual or homosexual de facto relationships. It means all couples, in any of these relationships, have the same rights under New Zealand law, with the possible exception of the adoption law.
Therefore, nothing is to be gained from redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, since equal rights have already been granted. That battle was fought and won in 2005.
In 1893, New Zealand was the first nation to grant women the vote, but we did not do that by redefining men to include women, but rather by recognising the equality of women. In the same way the Relationships Act does not alter the definition of marriage but rather recognises the equality of same-sex unions, be they civil union or de facto, at law.
The mantra of "marriage equality" needs to be viewed against that background. In my view, that mantra does not stand up to scrutiny because all of us can surely agree that a marriage between a man and a woman is biologically different from a union between two women or two men. Just as women and men are different, so those relationships are different (de facto relationships are different again because they exist in fact, but involve couples who are not married or in civil unions). Let us not forget that New Zealand law does permit homosexuals, who so choose, to marry and some have.
Recognition of the reality that women and men are biologically different does not constitute discrimination, inequality or a denial of rights. We separate women and men for sport and boys and girls for sport and education. Most Wellington secondary schools, for example, are single-sex, but that does not mean boys from Wellington College are not the equal of girls from St Mary's. Our laws against discrimination are founded on the principle of "different but equal".
Consequently, although it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, nationality, race, religion, marital status, and so on, in employment, housing, voting and the like, the law also recognises difference in many ways. Indeed, in our language we always, without exception, give different names to different things because life would become confusing if a rake was called a spade or vice versa.
Marriage is too important to the stability of our society and the raising of children to risk such a radical change to its traditional definition without sound reason. In my view, no such reason has been advanced.
Marriage can result in lifelong loving relationships between the spouses. It remains the best and most stable environment in which to raise children. It has stood the test of time and is common to all cultures and nations. Like democracy, it is not perfect, but it is better than all the other models. It would be greatly strengthened if governments invested in the delivery of pre-marriage preparation and post-wedding marriage enrichment programmes by non- government organisations, because marriage underpins a successful society, while the root cause of much poverty and delinquency arises from casual, unstable or broken relationships.
The Relationships Act created "relationships equality" and nothing more is necessary or desirable. The redefinition of marriage bill should not proceed.
Gordon Copeland is a former MP who was in Parliament in 2004-2005 when the Civil Unions and Relationships (Statutory References) Acts were passed. He opposed both.
- The Dominion Post
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