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May 21, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Bent – Civil Unions Vs. Marriage

Barack Obama made history this week, becoming the first US President to openly support same-sex marriage. While the New Zealand headlines certainly reflected the world’s fascination with this game-changing statement, the comment sections told a different story. True to cynical kiwi form, the same concern persisted – ’Why bother? Don’t gays already have civil unions? What exactly is the difference?’

I had a chat with Professor of Law Bill Atkin about the technicalities of same-sex unions and the role of marriage in New Zealand Law.

What exactly are the differences between a civil union and a marriage?

“Same sex couples cannot marry, obviously (and) same sex couples cannot adopt as the law stands. However, the High Court extended the old Adoption Act to de facto heterosexual couples and it is possible that  a court could in a future case do the same for civil union couples, same or opposite sex, and de facto same-sex couples. It is “watch this space”. The High Court decision expressed the view that there could be some difficulties in extending the law further but it is certainly possible. Either way, the law is unsatisfactory.”

Would you say that marriage is an important institution, or indeed as many people have proposed, a foundational part of society?

“It has been an important legal institution in the past, especially in the days of child illegitimacy. It is still popular and plenty of people want official and public recognition for their relationships but far fewer legal consequences now flow. Illegitimacy was abolished by a law passed in 1969 and there are now few differences in law between married, civil union and de facto couples, (as enacted in 2001).”

Is there anything in to the Bill of Rights or any other legal document that supports or rejects the idea that same sex couples should be able to get married?

The anti-discrimination laws. A group is seeking a declaration of inconsistency under the Human Rights Act in relation to the Adoption Act, not just on sexual orientation grounds.

What is currently being done in Parliament to advocate for marriage equality? Are you optimistic about their potential?

I gather Louisa Wall is drafting a Bill. Judging by Back Benchers on TV7 last night, a Bill might well succeed. On another front a number of MPs have been pressing for adoption law reform (wide reform, not just on the sexual orientation front).

Thank you for your time.

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