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CANBERRA, Australia Australia’s Parliament voted Thursday to allow same sex marriage across the nation, following a bitter debate settled by a much criticized government survey of voters that strongly endorsed change.
The public gallery in the House of Representatives erupted with applause when the bill passed. It changes the definition of marriage from solely between a man and a woman to “a union of two people” excluding all others. The legislation passed with a majority that wasn’t challenged, although four lawmakers registered their opposition.
The Senate passed the same legislation last week 43 votes to 12. The government later announced that same sex couples will be able to apply to marry starting Saturday, with the first weddings potentially from Jan. 6.
Champagne and tears flowed in the halls of Parliament House as gay celebrities including Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe and actress Magda Szubanski hugged lawmakers and ordinary folk in a party atmosphere.
“What an amazing day, I’m a little bit delirious, it’s extraordinary,” said Szubanski, who sat in the public gallery during Thursday’s daylong debate.
Labor Member of Parliament Linda Burney celebrates as the Australian Parliament passed the same sex marriage bill in Canberra on December 7, 2017. SEAN DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images
Thorpe thanked “our straight brothers and sisters” for strongly backing marriage equality in the two month postal survey.
“Quite literally without them voting for us, this would never have happened,” Thorpe said.
“It means that we’ve created an Australia that is more equitable, it’s more fair, it’s more just,” he added.
Janet Rice, a minor Greens party senator, hugged and kissed her transgender wife of 31 years, Penny Whetton, after the decision. They have been allowed to remain married because Whetton is listed as male on her birth certificate.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Rice said. “It’ been such a huge thing that we’ve been living with for so, so long and we’ve finally achieved equality.”
Tracy Clark and her partner Justyna Greinart embrace as they gather with a crowd of people to watch a large television screen at Federation Square as it is announced that same sex marriage will be legal in Australia with Parliament agreeing to change the Marriage Act and end the ban on gay and lesbian couples marrying on December 7, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Amendments meant to safeguard freedoms of speech and religion for gay marriage opponents were all rejected, though those issues may be considered later. The government has appointed a panel to examine how to safeguard religious freedoms once gay marriage is a reality in Australia.
Lawmakers advocating marriage equality had argued that the national postal survey in November mandated a change of the marriage definition alone, so changing the law should not be delayed by other considerations.
“What a day. What a day for love, for equality, for respect. Australia has done it.” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Gay marriage was endorsed by 62% of voters who responded to the postal ballot.
“It is now our job as members of Parliament to pass a fair bill that does not extend or create any new discriminations,” an emotional government lawmaker Warren Entsch, who helped draft the bill, told Parliament. “It is a strong bill that already strikes the right balance between equality and freedom of religion.”
Most gay rights advocates believed the government should have allowed marriages years ago and saw various ideas for a public survey as a delaying tactic. Human Rights Committee had called the ballot survey “an unnecessary and divisive public opinion poll.”
A man celebrates after the passing of the gay marriage bill on December 7, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Munoz/Getty Images)
The current bill allows churches and religious organizations to boycott gay weddings without violating Australian anti discrimination laws.
Existing civil celebrants can also refuse to officiate at gay weddings, but celebrants registered after gay marriage becomes law would not be exempt from anti discrimination laws.
One of the rejected amendments would have ensured Australians could speak freely about their traditional views of marriage without fear of legal action. It was proposed by Attorney General George Brandis and supported by Turnbull, both gay marriage supporters.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was a high profile advocate of traditional marriage, told Parliament that Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten had failed to deliver detailed protections for freedoms of speech, conscience and religion in the bill.
“A promise was made by the leaders of this Parliament and the promise has not adequately been delivered on,” Abbott said.
Equality ambassadors and volunteers from the The Equality Campaign gather in front of Parliament House in Canberra on December 7, 2017, ahead of the parliamentary vote on Same Sex Marriage. SEAN DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images
Abbott pointed to an Australian teenager who lost her job for advocating against gay marriage on social media and an Australian Catholic bishop who was taken before a state anti discrimination tribunal over a pamphlet he published extolling traditional marriage. The complaint against the bishop was dropped.
“The last thing we should want to do is to subject Australians to new forms of discrimination in place of old ones that are rightly gone,” he said.