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Telling us what to think

Conservative groups in New Zealand and the Civil Union Bill 2004

by Jonathan Ah Kit, Student Christian Movement Aotearoa

SCM Victoria joins a UniQ protest, 8 July 2005.
SCM Victoria joins a UniQ protest, 8 July 2005.
Photo courtesy of SCM Aotearoa

The third and final reading of the Civil Union Bill 2004 (CUB) was a step in the best direction for New Zealand's rainbow community, many of whom are by the nature of their life partnership with another of God's blessed creations, are unable to legally marry. While it was sad personally to see my rainbow friends still unable to marry, the extension of the concept of civil unions in to New Zealand law is a welcome step in that eventual direction.

As a women's studies undergraduate at the time of the Bill, I found myself looking at the arguments on both sides. A marked difference I came across with both was the basic way each of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps put forward for their argument.

For the ‘yes’ camp, I felt they were saying that it was a way to express themselves—some supporters I talked to even felt that it benefited from having no obvious church connotation, the churches in NZ still feeling quite an ownership of marriage. Much I felt was made of the argument that if churches or individuals didn't want to be involved in celebrating civil unions, that was their individual choice (cf Radio New Zealand, 24 January 2005), but that people should be allowed to make up their minds.

The ‘no’ camp, often taken up by a religious right, seemed to be repeating their previous arguments with the Homosexual Law Reform Bill 1986—just reading the Hansard of the second and third readings to see for oneself makes for grim reading. The cabinet minister that moved the CUB's final reading summed it up amply.

‘And in that way, sadly, one constant has remained from the debate of two decades ago-that is, that the arguments put forward by those in Opposition are often just emotive, fuelled by fear and misunderstanding. There is, in fact, no danger to the family from civil unions, as the experience of Denmark and other countries that have introduced such arrangements has amply proved.’ – Hon David Benson-Pope MP, Hansard, 9 December 2004 (www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz)

The biggest argument to me of the ‘yes’ camp was that there had to be a choice for New Zealanders. The argument of the Campaign for Civil Unions website (site no longer available) was that

‘love doesn't discriminate, and neither should the law’; it advocated that people should be able to think for themselves and the law should only make the minimal of dictations about how or what people should think in such a personal area as love.

During a Sunday morning service.
During a Sunday morning service.
Photo courtesy of SCM Aotearoa

Those religiously inclined in the ‘no’ camp tended to claim (among a few things) that marriage was something Christ set up, and that their views should dictate what others think. As one Catholic parishioner claimed after hearing the Catholic bishops' letter telling their flock to watch how their politicians voted, 'This country was built on Christian principles and the institution set up by Christ was marriage' (Dominion Post, 6 December 2004). This negates a spirit of ecumenism by denying other, diverse views a say in society—the parishioner was symbolic of the Church telling people what to think, not how, and trying to impose her own views on others. That's not to mention the other spiritual and religious traditions out there that also have marriage as an institution. The latter part of her argument also raises the question if Jesus set up marriage, what did we have before? Does that mean Adam and Eve weren't married?

This ties in with those religiously inclined in support of the Bill—a newspaper quoted one minister as noting using the Bible to condemn gays were selective in their also literalist use of the Bible:

‘Biblical people thought the Earth was flat, that women were the property of men and that slavery was an acceptable social institution. God gave us brains and we are expected to use them, and the knowledge we have gained over the centuries includes understanding about the diversity of human sexuality.’ – Rev Dr Margaret Mayman, Dominion Post, 9 September 2004.

Both sides had organised grassroots campaigns, both having some church backing. This was most evident in the select committee process of the CUB—in the NZ parliamentary system, this is where the public get to write submissions and pleas about a Bill. The Maxim Institute (www.maxim.org.nz) was the most vocal in the 'no' campaign on the CUB and its related Relationships (Statutory References) Bill 2004, and allied groups ensured that church groups wrote what amounted to form letters in opposition. The Campaign for Civil Unions ran a mostly web-based campaign, but did also do a submissions campaign, but asking that form letters not be used.

The most emotional part for me personally of the campaign wasn't the anti-gay slinging match that peppered the third reading of the Bill, but a submission number 748, bringing tears to my eyes when I read it myself. So did Tim Barnett MP, who summarised it and others during the second reading:

‘They [submission writers in opposition] described this bill as being the spark for the mass explosion of New Zealand's volcanoes. They claimed that homosexual Arab terrorists were roaming Christchurch promoting the bill. They claimed that most gay men die by their early 40s, giving me, at 46 years of age, kaumâtua [elder] status in this House. Then I read chilling submission CU 748, in which a 12-year-old describes homosexuals as worthy of death. Those in this House who reject this bill need to realise what that rejection is validating, be it blackshirts marching outside or twisted prejudice in the minds of our young.’ – Mr Tim Barnett MP, Hansard, 2 December 2004

For me, whether I agree or not with homosexuality is completely irrelevant, but one point I've learnt from Catholic social teaching as well as Christian teaching generally is to treat others as you'd want to be treated. By supporting my rainbow friends’ right to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or simply ‘rainbow’ I feel is a step to that. And by supporting them to in law having their life partnership with another of God's chosen people recognised (civil unions), I am doing just that. By supporting them as fellow people, I am doing so.

Perhaps to end, this love and support we as Christians should have for people we might see as different from (or even similar or the same as) ourselves is summed up by what was called in Mark 12:31 as the greatest commandment.

‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.’ – Leviticus 19:18

That’s not to mention I’m still waiting for the volcanoes, hellfire and brimstone some ‘no’ submitters on the Bill promised. The world didn’t end 20 years ago with homosexual law reform, it hasn’t with civil unions, and it sure won’t when New Zealand finally addresses the same sex adoptions issue.

About the Author:
When not running off to Mass in a hurry because he’s forgotten, Jonathan admits to being the secretary of the Victoria University of Wellington unit of Student Christian Movement Aotearoa. As a Gender and Women’s Studies postgraduate honours candidate at the university’s College of Education, Jonathan is planning to research Christian organisations’ responses to sexual and moral panics in New Zealand in the 1950s.