New Zealand

Last Updated 3 March 2021

New Zealand consists of two main islands and other outlying smaller islands. It has a population of approximately 5 million (as estimated in March 2020) and has a democratic, parliamentary government.

The larger Realm of New Zealand includes the democratic self-governing Associated States: the Cook Islands, population approximately 17,500 (2016 census); Niue, population approximately 1,800 (2017 census); and the dependent, but largely self-governing, territory of Tokelau, population approximately 1,500 (2017 census).

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

New Zealand does not have a written constitution, but laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. These rights are generally respected in practice.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights1 protects freedom of religion or belief and the Human Rights Act 19932 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religious or ethical belief.

The government does not generally promote any religion; however, a prayer is recited at the opening of every parliamentary session. In 2017, the traditional Christian prayer was altered to make it less faith-specific.3–no-more-queen-or-jesus

Religious privilege

There are some 170 Acts on the statute books that favour religion or Ministers of Religion at the expense of the non-religious community. For example: organizations that “advance religion” are given charitable status and tax exemption, regardless of any other charitable activity;4 all extradition treaties and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters agreements with foreign countries provide that New Zealand may refuse assistance or extradition if it is suspected that the offence for which the person is sought relates to their religion but do not provide protection for those who are sought because they have no religion;5;; the Marriage Act 19556 places different and more onerous requirements on non-religious organizations for the annual registration of Marriage Celebrants than it does for religious organizations; and religious workers are given preferential entry to New Zealand.7

Pastoral care in hospitals is funded by the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards. Currently, the only provider is the Interchurch Council for Hospital Chaplaincy (ICHC). ICHC holds a contract for the chaplaincy service with the Ministry of Health. The ICHC, formed by 8 partner churches in 1996 to work with the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards to provide Hospital Chaplaincy, became a registered charity in 2008.

In addition, a “Statement on Religious Diversity” published and widely promulgated by the Human Rights Commission provides for the “Safety and Protection of Faith Based Communities” but not for non-theistic and other communities.8

Humanists continue to call to cease concessions afforded to Christian groups, particularly as, according to the latest 2018 census, the number of non-religious in New Zealand has overtaken all other belief groups, with non-religious now representing 48% of the

Exclusory religious symbolism

While the government does not have a state religion, non-denominational religious ceremonies and invocations are common at government events and in numerous other elements of the state’s self-representation.

For example: a prayer is recited at the opening of every parliamentary session and some local authority meetings; both official National Anthems invoke god; religious symbols are incorporated into the New Zealand flag; religion in the form of prayer and song are used at many government, local authority, and other state functions; and state funerals are invariably religious even when the deceased person is not.

The state subsidizes religious activities through tax and local authority rate exemptions, through grants, and through subsidies to religious schools.

Associated states

New Zealand law does not apply in the Cook Islands or Niue and only applies in Tokelau when New Zealand statutes specifically state that they will apply to Tokelau.

Cook Islands

The Cook Islands Constitution Act 1964 passed by the New Zealand parliament established the self-governing Associate State of the Cook Islands in free association with New Zealand. Part IV A of the constitution inserted by the Cook Islands Constitution Amendment Act 1981 protects fundamental Human Rights including the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. These rights are generally respected in practice.

Nevertheless the preamble to the Cook Islands Constitution10 contains an invocation of God, stating:

“IN THE HOLY NAME OF GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, THE EVERLOVING, AND THE EVERLASTING We, the people of the Cook Islands, recognising the heritage of Christian principles, Cook Islands custom, and the rule of law, remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day, being that day of the week which, according to a person’s belief and conscience, is the Sabbath of the Lord.”


The Niue Constitution Act 1974,11 an Act of the New Zealand parliament, established Niue as a democratic self-governing Associate State in free association with New Zealand. The Constitution Act provides protection for fundamental Human Rights. While there is no constitutional or other right to freedom of religion or belief or right to freedom of expression there are no significant legislative restrictions to freedoms. Human rights are generally respected in practice. There is no ban on abortion or laws against blasphemy. There is however a ban on fishing on Sundays.


Tokelau is a self-governing dependent territory of New Zealand within the realm of New Zealand. The Constitution of Tokelau 201612 states that: individual human rights for all people in Tokelau are those stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Human Rights are generally respected in practice. New Zealand legislation does not apply in Tokelau unless the New Zealand legislation specifically includes Tokelau. The New Zealand Bill of Rights, Human Rights Act and Crimes Act do not extend to Tokelau. While there are no specific laws against abortion or blasphemy these offences may yet exist under common law.

Further, the Constitution of Tokelau commences with an invocation to God:

“We, the people of Tokelau, declare,

Tokelau is permanently founded on God. This foundation is made manifest in the villages and when the people cooperate and live together peacefully and happily,

At the dawn of time the historic islands of Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo, and Olohega were created as our home. Since the days of Maui and Tui Tokelau the land, sea, and air have nurtured our people, and God has watched over us.”

Education and children’s rights

New Zealand has a state-operated free, secular, and compulsory national education system that provides education for around 80% of school pupils in New Zealand.

Education Reforms

On 1 August 2020, the Education and Training Act 2020 came into force, replacing both the Education Act 1964 and 1989.13; The new act continues the emphasis that teaching within state-owned primary schools “shall be entirely of a secular character.” A key change in the law is the move to an opt-in system relating to religious instruction. As such, parents must confirm in writing that they agree for their child to take part in religious instruction.

The Act, however, requires that parents must still opt their children out of religious observances and also repeats provisions from the Education Act 1989 allowing parents to opt their children out of tuition in particular subjects on religious or cultural grounds, and for any parent to ask for their child be excused from tuition in “specified parts of the health curriculum related to sexuality education”.14See Sections 50, 55-60:

While teaching in state owned public secondary schools is generally of a secular character, there is no requirement for this, and religious instruction or other religious activities such as bible reading and hymn singing may also occur in secondary schools at the discretion of individual school boards.

The state also fully funds private “Integrated” schools and partially funds other private schools.15 The majority of Integrated and private schools are owned by religious organizations. There is no requirement for teaching in Integrated and other private schools to be of a secular character and these schools may introduce religious instruction at the discretion of individual school boards. The ministry does not keep data on how many schools permit religious instruction or observances.

In 2019, the Ministry of Education provided new guidelines to boards of trustees recommending that schools provide full and accurate communication to students and families about religious education and suggested the implementation of an opt-in rather than opt out system. An opt-in system is a requirement of the Education and Training Act 2020.

Child marriage

The Minors (Court Consent to Relationships) Legislation Act 201816 amended the Marriage Act 195517 and the Civil Union Act 200418 to require family court approval rather than parental approval for the marriage of persons aged 16 or 17 to ensure that marriages are not forced, and are in the best interest of the persons involved. However, there are no specific laws to prevent forced and underage marriage of a New Zealand citizen taking place in another country.

Family, community and society

Over the course of 2019 and 2020, the New Zealand government has made significant progress in safeguarding the rights of all its citizens. However, individuals seeking refuge under the 1951 Refugee Convention face additional challenges when compared to equivalent refugees who enter the country under annual resettlement quotas.19;

Sexual and reproductive health rights

Female genital mutilation

In 1995, New Zealand enacted a law to prevent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by adding sections 204A and 204B to the Crimes Act 1961.20 The law prohibited all FGM performed within New Zealand, the incitement, counselling, or procurement of FGM on a child who is a New Zealand citizen or normally New Zealand resident performed outside New Zealand, or the incitement, counselling, procurement, or inducement of any person to submit to FGM. A cross-party sponsored Crimes (Definition of Female Genital Mutilation) Amendment Act 2020 updated the definition of FGM from 7 August 2020 to comply with current World Health Organisation standards.21 The incidence of FGM in New Zealand is unknown as New Zealand has no requirement to report incidences for statistical or judicial purpose.


As of 24 March 2020, under the Abortion Legislation Act 2020,22 legal abortion has been removed from the Crimes Act of mainland New Zealand, and allows women to access an abortion on request during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and after 20 weeks with the approval of a health practitioner. A proposal to establish safe zones around abortion clinics was defeated in the house.23

Cook Islands

However, Sections 203 to 207 of the Cook Islands Crimes Act24 prohibit abortion with prison terms of up to 7 years and do not allow for abortions performed in good faith for the preservation of the life of the mother.


Marriage in New Zealand is governed by the Marriage Act 1955.25 As per the 1976 Marriage Amendment Act26 all marriages must be performed by a registered marriage celebrant in the place specified on the marriage licence. Approved secular or religious organizations may register celebrants.

New Zealand introduced civil unions between any two persons regardless of sex from 26 April 2005 and legalized same sex marriage in 2013.

Assisted dying

In November 2019, parliament enacted the End of Life Choice Act 2019.27 The Act will come into force on 6 November 2021, twelve months after the release of the final results of the referendum held on 17 October 2020 that confirmed public support for the Act by 65.1% to 33.7%.28

The Act gives people the right to choose assisted dying if they are competent New Zealand citizens or permanent residents over the age of 18 with a terminal illness that are likely to die within six months, are in irreversible physical decline, and are suffering unbearable pain. People with mental illness or disorder, disability, or advanced age are not eligible. The Act contains safeguards to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Act.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression and media freedom are protected by law and broadly respected in practice.

Freedom of assembly and freedom of association are also fully protected in law and broadly respected in practice.

Blasphemy Law repealed in 2019

Until 2019, a “blasphemy” law had been in place in New Zealand, under a section on “crimes against morality and decency, sexual crimes and crimes against public welfare” within the Crimes Act 1961. The law was a relic of the imposition of English common law.

In theory “blasphemy” offences were punishable with a prison term. However, on 12 March 2019, Section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 was repealed by section 5 of the Crimes Amendment Act 2019 (2019 No 4);

Blasphemy legislation is known to exist in at least one of the Associated States of the Realm of New Zealand. However, it remains unclear whether it is enforced.

Cook Islands

Section 134 of the Cook Islands Crimes Act 196930 allows for a prison term of up to one year for the publication of a blasphemous libel but exempts from prosecution opinions or arguments on religious subjects expressed in good faith and decent language and all prosecutions require the leave of the Minister of Justice.


14 See Sections 50, 55-60:
24, 30

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