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A new same sex marriage bill has passed its first reading in New Zealand parliament.

A total of 80 MPs voted in favour of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which will make it legal for same sex couples to marry in New Zealand. Forty MPs opposed it.

The bill is sponsored by Labour Party MP Louisa Wall, who made it clear that passing the bill - which will define marriage as a legal union between two people regardless of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity - would not force religious leaders to conduct gay marriages if they did not wish to do so.

"That is the situation now, and nothing will change. And because we have freedom of religion in New Zealand no religious body is bound to marry a couple if that marriage is at odds with their religion's belief,'' she said.

A petition signed by 50,000 people opposing the bill was delivered to parliament this week.

Labour MP Su'a William Sio also voiced opposition to the bill, saying: "This is a matter that is very sensitive for members of my constituency .... Many in the community want Parliament to focus on the more weighty matters of putting food on the table and paying the bills,'' the New Zealand Herald reported.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said his party was in favour of putting same sex marriage to a public referendum.

He said: "This matter is, by definition, one of public morality and if New Zealand is to have a public morality it must be decided by the public, the voters of New Zealand."

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Same sex marriage bill passes first reading in New Zealand parliament
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