Thursday, May 04, 2006

Garth George: Civil unions fuss turns out much ado about nothing

It is inevitable, I suppose, that the matter of civil unions will continue to crop up from time to time, but the manner of the latest eruption of discussion is extraordinary, to say the least.

It began a week ago today when Hugh Kempster, parson of St Columba Anglican Church in Grey Lynn, wrote a letter to this newspaper which, probably because of its oddity, was made the lead letter of the day.

In it he complained, bitterly and emotionally, that although he was both a priest and a civil union celebrant, he wasn't allowed to perform civil union ceremonies in his church.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Kempster's letter generated a gaggle of responses, mostly from others who are entitled to the honorific "Rev", and the vexed question of civil unions vis a vis the Church has once again been aired.

And so far every single one of them has missed the point.

Which is that the whole idea of having civil unions was to give people, mainly male and female homosexuals, the chance to enter into a recognised union - a marriage in all but name - in which the Church had no say or involvement.

The law was intended to give legitimacy to same-sex unions simply because no church in New Zealand will have a bar of them, even though there are persistent movements in a number of mainline denominations- Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican in particular - towards that end.

So what on earth is an Anglican priest complaining about because he can't carry out civil union in his church? For that matter, what is an ordained priest doing being also a civil union celebrant?

It seems strange that a priest forbidden by his church to indulge in unifying same-sex couples should become a civil union celebrant and thus become entitled in the eyes of the state to do exactly what his employer has told him he cannot.

Is it any wonder that the word has come down that these ceremonies are not to be held in his church?

To read Mr Kempster's letter you would think that this is a big issue for a lot of people. It isn't.

In the first year of the Civil Union Act, a mere 460 couples - 178 male, 199 female, 81 opposite sex, plus two who changed from marriage to civil union - have availed themselves of the opportunity.

And since there are some 600 marriage celebrants in New Zealand, Mr Kempster's share must have been minuscule, even taking into account that a disproportionate number of same-sex couples probably live in Grey Lynn and its environs.

(By comparison, incidentally, there were some 22,000 marriages conducted in the first 12 months of the Civil Union Act.)

The 2001 Census recorded that there were 5070 same-sex couples living together in that year (0.6 per cent of the number in some form of couple relationship).

There will be more by now, so it appears that less than 6 per cent of same-sex couples have bothered with a civil union.

The experience in other countries which have similar law - Holland, Denmark and Belgium, for instance - is that the first year for civil unions is the big one then they taper off.

United Future MP Gordon Copeland, who has made a study of the European statistics, reckons that once our New Zealand backlog has been dealt with, we'll be looking at about 55 civil unions a year.

So much for those politicians who insisted that this law was so vital for so many people and rammed it through despite widespread public opposition.

Nor is it surprising that many civil union celebrants, who went to considerable time and expense to get "qualified", have packed it in, and that a number of websites set up to self-promote homosexual celebrants have abruptly disappeared from cyberspace.

Says Matthew Flanagan, an ethicist, moral philosopher and theologian who is spokesman for the conservative think-tank, the Locke Foundation: "I remember Tim Barnett saying that multitudes of New Zealanders were suffering a huge injustice and were being prevented from expressing the commitment they so desperately wanted to.

"They have now had the opportunity to affirm that, and they haven't."

Greg Fleming, CEO of another conservative think-tank, the Maxim Institute, says the low number of registered civil unions shows that the existing law is not meeting the needs of many New Zealanders and should be amended.

"The Civil Union Act discriminates against people in committed but non-romantic relationships who want the legal certainty of registration but not the marriage-like ceremony of a civil union," says Mr Fleming.

"Maxim Institute firmly believes that clarity around next-of-kin status is important for all people, not just romantic relationships."

He says neither the Civil Union Bill nor the Relationships Bill attended to the issues of next-of-kin status or hospital visitation rights and "there is a need for an opt-in relationship which has clear legal rights but does not mimic marriage as the civil union does, because this is inappropriate for many people".

Mike Petrus, president of the Society for Community Standards, points out that the tiny number of homosexuals who have entered into civil unions since the act was passed proves that legislators were conned by all the hype and rhetoric generated by a tiny group of vociferous homosexual activists and their supporters.

And that, judging by the genesis of the latest discussion, is still going on.

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