Editorial: Change the law to end discrimination

Marriage should be the union between two people. Whether they are both men or both women should be no business of the state.

Parliament has an opportunity to make that a reality by passing Labour MP Louisa Wall's bill to allow gay marriage.

New Zealand's social fabric has changed beyond recognition since the Marriage Act was passed in 1955. Back then, marriage was considered the cornerstone of the family, the idea that a man and a woman could live together outside wedlock was unthinkable and sex between men was still punishable by life in prison.

Not surprisingly, then, the act's legislators did not feel the need to define who could legally marry. New Zealand was a socially conservative country, and there was no doubt in their minds that marriage was restricted to the traditional definition of a union between a man and a woman. That was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 1997, when it denied three lesbian couples marriage licences.

However, attitudes to marriage have evolved markedly in recent years. When the Civil Union Act was passed in 2004, polls found the majority of Kiwis supported the change, but remained opposed to gay marriage. In June this year, a TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll found two-thirds were in favour of allowing gay couples to marry.

The clearest sign of the changing public mood was Prime Minister John Key's commitment to support Ms Wall's bill to a select committee, and possibly beyond. Mr Key voted against the Civil Union Act, citing a need to follow the views of his Helensville constituents. As prime minister, he has more freedom to follow his conscience.

Despite the change in attitudes among most, there are large sections of society who fear and oppose Ms Wall's bill.

Many have strong religious convictions, and argue that homosexuality goes against New Zealand's Judeo-Christian heritage. Others say that allowing gay weddings would undermine the sanctity of marriage. Still others say that gay relationships have already been accorded official recognition through the Civil Union Act, which extends most of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples.

However, New Zealand is a secular state and though all religious beliefs must be respected, nobody has the right to impose theirs on those who hold different views. Ms Wall's bill recognises that important principle by allowing religious institutions which oppose same sex marriages to refuse to perform them if it becomes law.

There is also no reasonable explanation as to why gay weddings would undermine the sanctity of marriage. Each marriage is an individual union between two people. It stretches credulity to suggest that heterosexual couples will suddenly decide not to tie the knot, or to get divorced, just because gay couples have the right to marry.

Although gay couples can enjoy many of the benefits of marriage through civil unions, the fact remains that denying them the right to marry purely because of their sexuality relegates them to second-class citizens.

The law as it stands belongs to a society that disappeared long ago. It is discriminatory and it is time it was changed.

The Dominion Post