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Originally published March 13, 2013 at 3:54 AM | Page modified March 13, 2013 at 7:19 AM

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New Zealand gay marriage bill passes critical test

New Zealand lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill allowing same-sex marriage Wednesday, all but assuring that it will soon become law.

Associated Press

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A lot of sheep in New Zealand. MORE

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand —

New Zealand lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill allowing same-sex marriage Wednesday, all but assuring that it will soon become law.

Lawmakers supported the bill 77 to 44 in the second of three votes needed for a bill to be approved. The second vote is typically the most crucial one. The third and final vote is likely to be little more than a formality and could be taken as early as next month.

Wednesday's vote came after a committee of lawmakers considered emails and letters from thousands of New Zealanders.

More than 200 people crammed into the Parliament's public gallery to watch lawmakers debate the bill before they voted at about 10:15 p.m. The mostly young crowd clapped and cheered for lawmakers who spoke in support of the bill, and sat in silence for those who spoke in opposition.

"I'm very excited, as excited as the young people," bill sponsor Louisa Wall said after the vote. "It's a fantastic result."

The result was little changed from the 80-to-40 result in the first vote in August. There were some minor changes to the bill, including wording to make it clear that clergy can decline to preside over gay marriage ceremonies if they conflict with their beliefs.

In her speech supporting the bill, Wall said denying marriage to any person devalues that person's right to participate fully in all that life offers.

"Marriage belongs to society as a whole, and that requires the involvement of the whole of society," Wall said. "The role of the state in marriage is to issue a license to two people who love each other and want to commit to one another formally. That's what this bill does."

Wall, who is gay, quoted Seattle singer Macklemore: "And I can't change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to, I can't change."

Many New Zealand church groups opposed the bill.

Lawmaker Chester Borrows said he opposes the bill because it would redefine marriage from the heterosexual institution it has always been.

Student Rory Sweeney, 20, was one of a handful of people who were unable initially to get into Parliament's public gallery because it was full. He said he was in favor of the bill because "everybody needs to be treated the same under the law."

New Zealand already has same-sex civil union laws that confer many legal rights to gay couples.

Polls indicate about two-thirds of New Zealanders support gay marriage. The bill was given impetus last year by President Barack Obama's public support of the issue.

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