Australian territory to allow gay civil marriages
CANBERRA, Mar 29 (Reuters) Gay civil marriages are set to become a reality in Australia after years of lobbying from the homosexual community, with the nation's capital territory government introducing same-sex civil union legislation.
Gay couples in the capital Canberra could be holding ceremonies to have their relationships formally recognised as early as the middle of the year, said Jon Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
''The new laws will give same-sex couples functional equality under ACT law with married couples,'' he said today. Stanhope's Labor Party has a majority in the one house ACT parliament and expects to pass the legislation in May.
The ACT is the first territory or state in Australia to introduce legislation to legalise gay civil unions. Australia has two territories and six states.
Conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard, along with Australia's influential Catholic Church, opposes gay marriages and national laws do not recognise same-sex unions.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesman Rodney Croome welcomed the ACT legislation, saying gay couples deserved the right to have their relationships affirmed by society.
''The Stanhope government's proposed civil union scheme is an important step towards a society in which all inter-personal love, care and commitment is valued,'' Croome told reporters.
''Inevitably we will see same-sex couples travelling to Canberra to have their unions solemnised and returning home expecting and demanding equal recognition and protection for their relationships.'' The ACT's civil union will only give gay couples equality with married couples regarding wills and the division of property in the territory. While the civil union is open to all Australians it is only valid in the ACT and will not affect national laws governing taxation, superannuation and health care.
''My challenge to the federal government is to end its discriminatory treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians,'' Stanhope said in a statement.
''While the ACT is determined to do what it can to afford equal protection under the law to all people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation, it must be recognised that without changes federally, this equal treatment will be enjoyed only in relation to territory laws.'' Britain introduced gay civil unions in December 2005, with singer Elton John and his partner David Furnish among hundreds of gay couples who tied the knot.
A number of other countries, including Canada, Spain, France, Argentina, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands allow for formal recognition of same-sex relationships.
REUTERS SB KP1029