Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A debate over recognizing "civil unions" for same-sex couples in New Zealand has turned ugly, with opponents of the move being likened to hate-groups.
Advocates of civil unions -- including the government minister responsible for the legislation -- have sought to link their opponents to extremists by appealing to current public worries about anti-Semitic activity and a planned visit to New Zealand by a controversial historian and Holocaust-skeptic.
The Civil Union Bill, which passed its first reading in parliament last June and was sent to a select committee for public feedback, will give legal recognition to same-sex couples as well as to heterosexuals who choose not to marry.
Critics argue that the move is a cover for same-sex marriage, and will weaken marriage and families.
Opposition to the bill has been spearheaded by Christians and conservatives, including the leader of New Zealand's Catholic Church; a think-tank called the Maxim Institute; and Destiny, an evangelical church which recently launched a political party to contest the next general election.
Destiny last month launched a national protest campaign called Enough is Enough, and recently held a small public demonstration in central Auckland. A larger rally is planned outside parliament in Wellington on Aug. 23.
When Catholic Cardinal Tom Williams earlier issued a statement decrying policies which he said were turning New Zealand into a "moral wasteland," associate justice minister David Benson-Pope invited Catholic leaders to meet for a discussion about the Civil Union Bill.
But his reaction to other opponents has been considerably less cordial.
In a public speech this week, Benson-Pope drew a link between the Enough is Enough campaigners and the still-unidentified perpetrators of recent anti-Jewish vandalism in the capital.
"That the Destiny protests -- bussing school children dressed in black shirts to rallies where they are clearly told it is alright to hate -- came in the same week as Jewish headstones were smashed in Wellington, was a coincidence of timing," he told a Rotary Club audience.
"It does however remind us of some of the darker days of history," he continued, adding: "This intolerance is pretty scary. More so because it is being taught by a church."
Destiny Church has many detractors, not least of all because of its flashy style and flamboyant, motorcycle-riding pastor, Brian Tamaki.
Benson-Pope hinted that the influences behind the group came from the United States.
The growing intolerance in New Zealand society was "more and more using language and tactics imported from other countries," he said.
"The baseball caps don't do any harm but some of the views behind them do. That the Destiny Church is lead by a Harley-riding tele-evangelist is one example."
Much has been made of the fact that children participated in the Auckland rally, which drew around 2,000 people.
Local media coverage also emphasized the fact many of those taking part were wearing black t-shirts, and some letters written to newspapers sought to draw parallels with fascists or Nazis.
"Does anyone else feel a twinge of unease at the sight of hundreds of men and boys, dressed in black t-shirts, marching down Queen Street on Saturday and chanting 'enough is enough'?" said one.
In a published op-ed piece, the head of a university gender and women's studies department wrote: "Let's repudiate those who, like the marchers of Destiny church, Holocaust deniers or racial provocateurs, create a climate in which it is acceptable to express bigoted and discriminatory views ..."
Also coming in for attack has been the Maxim Institute, which Benson-Pope in his speech described as an "extreme right-wing" group whose staff members were "inextricably linked" to "fundamentalist American organizations."
Maxim communications manager Scott McMurray said Wednesday the minister's remarks were "simply an attempt to try and silence those who are opposed to the controversial legislation that he is promoting."
He said Benson-Pope had not provided any proof to back up his allegations of links with "fundamentalists" in the U.S.
Maxim has in the past denied government charges that it is anything other than an independent group funded by concerned New Zealanders.
"This is a powerful, $40 billion government machine trying to bully and intimidate a small charitable group," Maxim managing director Greg Fleming said a fortnight ago, after a previous attack.
Fleming said this week that\lang5129 Benson-Pope's "latest salvo" was designed to take the focus off the debate's central issue - the best interests of children.
"Marriage is the best environment in which to raise children and should be promoted and preferred in law," he said, challenging the minister to explain "how marginalizing marriage is a good thing for children."
Those black shirts
Destiny also has highlighted the importance of children in its Enough is Enough campaign, which deals not only with the Civil Union Bill but also with other government initiatives, including the legalization of prostitution, and a measure that enables girls under 16 to have abortions without their parents' knowledge.
Richard Lewis, leader of the Destiny political party, said participants in the recent rally had included grandparents, parents, teens and children - average New Zealanders "standing for traditional family values and the well-being of children."
The government should be more concerned about 12-year-olds becoming street prostitutes, or girls of that age having abortions without their parents' consent, he said.
Andrew Stock, national coordinator of the Enough is Enough campaign, said Wednesday he was not surprised by the attacks. A daily television program produced by the church had come under fire in the past for addressing issues relating to homosexuality, he said.
Stock noted that the Labor government has several high-profile homosexual lawmakers who were driving the legislative changes and "have singled out Destiny Church as their main opposition."
He said the campaign was clearly a threat to the "government and gay community agenda to legalize same-sex marriage by way of the Civil Union Bill."
Stock also dismissed the adverse reaction to the campaigners' attire.
Rally participants had worn black t-shirts bearing in bold white lettering the slogan "I'm standing for the next generation."
The shirts were "a simple marketing tool" and were "consistent with New Zealand's international sporting code of colors, being black and white," he said, pointing to the colors worn by the country's rugby team, the All Blacks, and by its Olympic athletes.
"Recent comments aligning Destiny Church with racial provocateurs, Holocaust deniers and fascist or neo-nazis are at the extreme end of adverse comment received by the church and those involved in this campaign," Stock said.
"It has only served to strengthen supporters' resolve."
See earlier story:
Catholic Leader Sees 'Moral Wasteland' Resulting From Liberal Policies (Jun. 28, 2004)
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