WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly cast a first vote in favor of a gay marriage bill that was given impetus by President Barack Obama's public support of the issue.
The 80 to 40 vote in front of a packed and cheering public gallery was the first of three votes Parliament must hold before the bill can become law, a process that typically takes several months and allows the public to weigh in. Only a simple majority was needed to ensure a second vote, and the margin is a strong indication that the bill will be passed.
Should New Zealand pass the measure into law, it would become the 12th country since 2001 to recognize same-sex marriage. Some states in the U.S. also recognize such marriages, but the federal government does not.
Polls indicate about two-thirds of New Zealanders support gay marriage. It also has the support of most of the country's political leaders.
New Zealand already has in place same-sex civil union laws that confer many legal rights to gay couples, although activists argue those laws don't give them equal social status. One important change under the proposed legislation, however, is that same-sex married couples could jointly adopt a child, something they can't do under current laws.
The proposed changes can be directly traced to Obama's declaration in May in support of gay marriage. That prompted center-right Prime Minister John Key to break his long silence on the issue by saying he was "not personally opposed" to the idea. Then lawmaker Louisa Wall, from the opposition Labour Party, put forward a bill she had previously drafted.
"If I'm really honest, I think the catalyst was around Obama's announcement, and then obviously our prime minister came out very early in support, as did the leader of my party, David Shearer," Wall told The Associated Press. "The timing was right."
Wall, 40, is openly gay. She represented the country in both netball and rugby before turning to politics, a background she said helps give her focus. She said she's gotten thousands of emails both supporting and opposing her stance on gay marriage, including some hate mail.
This week, opponents of the bill presented a petition to lawmakers signed by 50,000 people. Bob McCoskrie, founder of the conservative lobby group Family First, which helped organize the petition, said civil unions go far enough in providing legal rights to same-sex couples and there's no need to redefine marriage.
"Equality doesn't mean sameness," he said. "Marriage has always been about the relationship of a man and a woman because of their natural potential to have children."
Despite sponsoring the bill, Wall said that if it passes, she has no plans to marry her partner of five years, lawyer Prue Tamatekapua. She said that for them, the civil union celebration they enjoyed two years ago is enough.
"I'm happy. Other people aren't," she said. "I'm not driven by self-interest, if I can say that. For me, this is fundamentally about living in a fair and just society."
Same-sex marriage is currently recognized in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark. Several other countries, including France, are considering making it legal.
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