As homosexual partners for 15 years, John Jolliff and Des Smith have lived together in a jointly owned house in Wellington. Until February 1, Jolliff owned 25 percent of the house. Under a new Property (Relationships) Amendment Act, Jolliff's share of the property will double should they separate.

This law, which amends the Matrimonial Property Act of 1976, gives property rights to unmarried partners who have lived together "in the nature of marriage" for three years. The law would apply unless a couple is about to separate and has opted out.

The measure's supporters say it will make division of couples' assets more equitable. But some Christians believe the legislation undermines traditional marriage and brings New Zealand one step closer to legalizing gay marriage. Homosexual relations were decriminalized in 1986, and Christian political activists have resisted efforts to give legal recognition to unmarried, cohabiting couples.

Prime Minister Helen Clark (Labor Party) has not taken a public position on gay marriage, but she says the new law does not threaten marriage.

"If you recognize any other relationships as equal to marriage," says Graham Capill, leader of the small Christian Heritage Party, "you have devalued the institution of marriage."

Gay marriage remains unpopular in New Zealand, as indicated by responses to "Same Sex Couples and the Law," a 1999 discussion paper by the nation's Justice Ministry. More than 80 percent of 8,464 people and organizations responding to the paper opposed gay marriage, a quarter of them citing religious objections.

When Clark dismissed the responses as not representing all New Zealanders, Capill told the press, "If the result had been the other way around, you can bet your bottom dollar ...

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