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Duelling church demonstrations mark anti-smacking bill’s passage

By Julia Stuart

More than 150 church leaders from the Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic churches signed a letter of ‘Christian support for the Child Discipline Bill’. Signatories included the Methodist church’s current president, Rev Dr John Salmon, and president-elect Rev Brian Turner.

The letter stated “Some of the highly vocal and visible opposition to the& Bill has come from Christian groups whose belief in the use of physical discipline of children is based on a selective interpretation of the Bible. Their view is not shared by all Christians.

“These church leaders want to see the Bill pass into law& Because of their own faith, they wish to see a more just and less violent society, which seeks to develop law to protect the wellbeing of its citizens.”

In a silent and dignified march of witness to Parliament House, nearly 500 church leaders and supporters publicly presented the letter of support to Sue Bradford, the MP responsible for putting the Bill forward at Parliament. The short march followed a midday ecumenical Vigil of Prayer for Children at the nearby Anglican Cathedral, attended by the Prime Minister, senior Cabinet ministers, Sue Bradford and other Green Party MPs.

“We were surprised at how many people turned up,” said Rev Des Cooper of Wesley Wellington’s community-facing ministry. “We had no idea how many to expect as information about the service was all spread by word-of-mouth.

“But when the church leaders and Ministers and MPs walked into the Cathedral, we were greeted by applause from all those people. That’s never happened to me before.”

The focus of the service was all on children. In a ‘Lament for the Children of Aotearoa’, Presbyterian minister Margaret Mayman spoke briefly of “the ill treatment which is a reality for many children” –neglect, abuse, and death.

Children’s worker Fionnaigh McKenzie led a litany of hope, writer Joy Cowley read a specially-composed letter to parents, and Des Cooper led prayers and thanksgiving, including a prayer for those who debate, shape and fashion our laws, and for those who interpret and enforce the law affecting children.”

Representatives of children’s agencies Barnardos, UNICEF, Plunket and Save the Children lit candles between each reading, and the Cathedral bell tolled 11 times to mark the number of children killed by family-related violence each year in this country.

The event was in marked contrast – in size, content and the number of MPs attending – to the Destiny Church rally in Parliament grounds at the same time. About 1000 Destiny supporters came by bus from near and far to shout their objection to the Bill and to hear their leaders vilify the Government. Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia greeted the group and spoke in support of the Bill. Just one other MP – newly-independent Taito Philip Field – attended the Destiny rally.

The Vigil for Children was encouraged by the just-announced agreement between Labour and National to include a new section in the Bill giving police a clear direction to use their discretion in considering allegations against parents involving ‘inconsequential force’.

According to lawyers, this amendment makes no legal difference to the matters covered by the Bill. It simply spells out what is current practice. But it made a world of difference politically. It enabled the National Party to proclaim its support and ensured the Bill’s passed its third and final reading on May 16th.