Lawmakers in New Zealand have voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, in the second and most critical of three votes that could lead to the bill become law as early as April.

MPs voted 77 to 44 in favour on Wednesday, allowing it to pass to a third and final vote.

The last vote could take place as soon as April, and is likely to be merely a formality to confirm the decision of the second vote.

Minor changes had been made since the bill’s first vote in August, which passed overwhelmingly in favour, 80 votes to 40.

Clarification has been added that churches would not be forced to perform weddings for same-sex couples, and this was backed up by the Human Rights Commission.

Openly gay MP Louisa Wall said in a speech supporting the bill: “Marriage belongs to society as a whole, and that requires the involvement of the whole of society.┬áThe 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.”

The select committee has heard from 2,900 unique lobbies on either side of the debate during its consideration period.

One particularly fiery argument against legalising same-sex marriage came from anti-crime group leader Garth McVicar, who submitted to the committee that allowing same-sex marriage would “decay” family life and lead to an increase in “crime at all levels”.

In January Conservative MP Colin Craig, an opponent of equal marriage, called for a referendum on the bill, claiming “New Zealanders are more socially conservative, I think, than many of the parliamentarians.”

A survey published in February showed more New Zealanders polled in support for same-sex marriage than polled that civil partnerships were sufficient for gay couples.