(CNSNews.com) - As the U.S. Senate debates a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Australia's federal government has won praise and drawn flak for overriding a lower authority's legislation permitting same-sex couples to enter civil unions.
Prime Minister John Howard said on Wednesday the law passed last month by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) parliament was "plainly an attempt to mimic marriage under the misleading title of civil unions."
Announcing the move earlier, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock went further, accusing ACT's chief minister, Jon Stanhope, of a "cynical attempt ... to undermine the institution of marriage and circumvent the Commonwealth Marriage Act."
The Marriage Act, a law dating back to 1961, was amended in 2004 to define marriage explicitly as a union between a man and a woman.
Ruddock said the legislation passed in ACT -- a jurisdiction that includes the nation's capital, Canberra, and the surrounding area -- "make it clear that same-sex civil unions are just marriage by another name."
He pointed to a clause in the ACT law stating: "A civil union is different to a marriage but is to be treated for all purposes under territory law in the same way as a marriage."
The Australian Christian Lobby praised Howard's decision to override a law it called "a Trojan Horse for the pursuit of marriage by activists."
The federal government has the power to advise the governor-general -- the representative of Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's constitutional head of state -- to invalidate laws passed in the territory within six months of their passage.
Labeling Howard "homophobic," the small left-wing Green party said it would try to block the move in the Senate. To succeed, however, it would need the support of the official opposition Labor party, whose formal stance remains unclear.
Labor backed the government's 2004 amendment protecting traditional marriage, although one senior Labor lawmaker called Tuesday for her party to counter Howard's latest move.
Stanhope of ACT said he would lobby the governor-general, "imploring him not to be party to an act that would discriminate against Australian citizens who have a different sexual orientation."
Howard Thursday denied the discrimination charge, saying in a radio interview it was not a question of discriminating against homosexuals and lesbians, but one "of preserving as an institution in our society marriage as having a special character."
Activists in Australia have adopted a strategy of defining the homosexual community as a persecuted minority, frequently using terms like "apartheid."
Australian Coalition for Equality spokesman Rod Swift said Tuesday Howard was practicing a "Straight Australia policy" -- a reference to the controversial "White Australia" policy of excluding non-European migrants before the 1950s.
Swift pointed to a Feb. 2006 Newspoll survey, in which 52.5 percent of respondents agreed that the federal government should introduce a law recognizing "same-sex relationships" and 36.6 percent disagreed. (An earlier Newspoll poll, in 2004, asked about "same-sex marriage" and found 38 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.)
Groups of both sides of the same-sex union issue cite polls and statistics to support their position.
Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group representative Rodney Croome said this week "an overwhelming number of Australians" supported laws like the ACT one, while only "a tiny minority" was opposed.
A different view came from Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace, who argued that activists were pushing radical steps in the interests of a small minority.
He alluded to the situation in another Australian jurisdiction, Tasmania, where same-sex couples have since 2004 been able to register their relationships with the state government.
Wallace pointed out that less than 0.03 percent of Tasmania's population had done so since the system was introduced.
"If this is the case, we need to ask why on earth we should expect the 99.98 percent of society to have their institutions deconstructed at their demand," Wallace said.
In a national survey conducted in 2003, 1.6 percent of men identified themselves as homosexuals and 0.8 percent of women as lesbians.
Some activists contest those figures, saying many people choose to keep their relationships private, and claiming that a more accurate figure would be closer to 10 percent of the population.
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