Same-sex marriage

The issue of same-sex marriage has aroused strong feelings. For the gay community and supporters it is about equality and rights, and it represents both actual and symbolic acceptance before the law.

Those with same-sex sexual orientation have suffered social and legal persecution for centuries in many different societies, and the breaking down of one of the last citadels of exclusion is a milestone to be marked. Theirs is also an emotional argument.

If two people love each other and are dedicated to one another, why cannot they join together in the act of marriage whatever their gender?

For many social conservatives, notably those of fundamental or traditional religious beliefs, marriage was, is and should be a commitment between a man and a woman. The two genders are complementary and it is only through their union that children can be made naturally.

This important institution, upon which a healthy community is built, is being weakened, even debased. Further, why should gays try to co-opt ''marriage'' when gay couples have virtually all the same rights through civil union legislation? That union signals couple status through specific vows and at a ceremony.

Surely, that is sufficient without muscling in on marriage?

It was not many years ago (pre-1986) that homosexual acts between men were illegal. After much debate, protest marches and anguish, the law was changed.

Few now would favour a return to the laws as they then stood.

Similarly, the civil union debate was not without vehement opposition.

Then, last night, with a clear majority of parliamentarians supporting the third reading of the Marriage Amendment Bill, another milestone has been passed.

Attitudes have changed remarkably rapidly, helped along not just by the Hollywood's normalisation of gays but also with leaders like Barack Obama and John Key publicly backing change. Many young people, despite lingering prejudices, are bewildered about what the marriage fuss is about. In years to come, older generations might look back and wonder why views were so divided.

The sky is unlikely to fall with this change. Many New Zealand couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, will continue simply as de facto partners with, essentially, all the same rights and obligations as those who are married. Others will revel in the romance, excitement and public promises of marriage, in the chance to bring friends and family together in celebration. Marriage was, is and will continue on its present course - just with the addition of same-sex couples.

Fears have been raised about the wedge being driven in, as time goes on, to permit polygamy and other forms of partnership. That has not happened, however, in the 12 other nations that permit gay marriage.

The advent of civil unions hardly revolutionised society, and the numbers tying that particular knot have been low. It could well be, too, after a initial flurry, that same-sex marriages will be relatively infrequent. It could well be that winning official acceptance of marriage equality is more significant for many than partaking of marriage itself.

It has become clear along the way that churches and clergy not wishing to marry gay couples will not be forced to - and why would a gay couple seek such blessing except to cause trouble? This is a legal matter, and marriage as a religious undertaking remains additional and separate.

It is sensible, too, that Internal Affairs has dropped the ''particulars of parties to marriage'' as the sole heading in the relevant section of its draft marriage forms. The romantic and evocative ''bride and bridegroom'' will be retained as an option.

Even though society is changing, even though liberalism triumphed on this occasion, the genuine and thoughtful beliefs of those opposed to change should be respected. Conservative reactions to declines in the morality, standards and safety in a complex and, at times, nasty modern world are understandable. There will, indeed, be times when holding fast to traditional views and laws are the appropriate reaction. Legitimate liberalism, too, will allow for a plurality of views and practices and will not smother with mandatory political correctness or a dominant way of thinking.

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