Nick Henderson and Paul Nicholson, both 26, have been together for five years and live in the leafy northern Canberra suburbs in a house they co-own.

When ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope announced plans to introduce civil unions, which would see same-sex couples treated equally with married heterosexual couples under territory law, Henderson and Nicholson were keen to sign up.

We’d already made a commitment to each other, but for us a civil union ceremony is about making our commitment in front of family and friends in public, Nicholson said.

Then there’s the legal side which would mean we’re recognised as equal with everyone else. If we can’t do it our relationship is viewed as less than everyone else’s.

One day after Stanhope introduced his Civil Union Bill, they watched the news in disappointment as the federal government announced its intention to quash the legislation.

Prime Minister John Howard joined Attorney-General Philip Ruddock in stating the government would oppose the bill -“ the commonwealth has jurisdiction to override territory laws -“ because it attempted to equate same-sex relationships with marriage.

The government’s major problems with the bill, Ruddock said, was that it made repeated references to civil unions being treated the same as marriage under all aspects of ACT law.

The government also objected to the fact the new legislation gave civil celebrants, who come under commonwealth law, the ability to preside over civil union ceremonies. That would contradict federal law, Ruddock said.

Removing all references to marriage and creating an ACT-based civil celebrant register would possibly be enough for the government to back off.

This does not have to be an issue, Ruddock said.

All he has to do is remove those sections -¦ and to remove the entitlement that he seeks to confer on marriage celebrants to be able to carry out civil unions.

Howard said the government’s position was not an anti-homosexual gesture. But, he told Channel Ten news, You don’t equate a gay union with a traditional marriage. That’s our position.

Stanhope said the argument that civil unions would diminish marriage was ridiculous.

I think Mr Ruddock needs to be asked what is his real concern about my commitment to remove discrimination and to show respect to same-sex relationships, he told The Age.

And one has to pose the question of whether or not the real reason is there is no place in John Howard’s Australia for homosexuals.

A spokesperson for Stanhope told Sydney Star Observer the chief minister was getting legal advice about how to proceed. But it was almost certain the ACT would have to start their own territory-based register for civil celebrants.

I think Jon will approach the federal government to find out exactly what their problems with the bill are, the spokesperson said.

It may mean playing with the language. But Jon definitely wants to keep the intention of the bill without watering it down.

An amended Civil Unions Bill might still be ready for debate in ACT parliament in May, the spokesperson said.

Shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon said Labor objected to the government intervening in territory laws and suggested Howard was simply trying to distract from issues such as the AWB scandal and Work Choices.

We really object to this process, Roxon said. This is something that the states and territories should be able to make their own laws about.

Despite the setbacks, Henderson and Nicholson remain confident civil unions of some form will soon be legal in the ACT.

I think it’s something Stanhope is quite passionate about. It won’t be something he backs down from too quickly, Henderson said.

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