Australian Senate passes gay marriage bill in key step

SYDNEY, Australia (3rd UPDATE) – Australia's upper house senate on Wednesday passed a bill paving the way for the legalization of gay marriage, rejecting conservative efforts to add religious exemptions to the legislation.

The law is expected to pass through the lower house of parliament comfortably before Christmas after most lawmakers agreed to honor "the will of Australians" who voted in favor of same-sex marriage in a recent nationwide postal vote.

"We are a part of an act of acceptance, an act of inclusion, an act of respect, an act of celebration, a day when this Senate declares our acceptance of our LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, queer) brothers and our sisters," said Australia's highest-profile gay politician, Labor's Penny Wong.

"(The bill) says to so many Australians, this parliament, this country, accepts you for who you are. Your love is not lesser, and nor are you," she added.

Senators voted 43-12 in favor of the bill after rejecting calls to extend protections that allow religious ministers to refuse to conduct gay weddings to other services providers, such as bakers and florists.

Conservative lawmakers' efforts to include amendments that let parents pull their children from school programs they feel undermine heterosexual traditions were also defeated.

"The Australian people did not vote to restrict peoples' freedom of speech. The Australian people did not vote to restrict people's conscientious beliefs. The Australian people did not vote to restrict peoples' freedom of religion," said Senator Eric Abetz, a prominent "no" campaigner.

"If we want to have social cohesion, I believe it would have been of very real benefit for (the senate) to have considered some of the amendments," he added.

Divisive debate

After more than a decade of debate, Australians emphatically endorsed same-sex marriage with 62% of the 12.7 million people who participated in the nationwide postal poll voting "yes" this month to gay marriage, with just 38.4% voting "no".

"This victory is the culmination of more than a decade's work by supporters of equality," said Anna Brown of the Equality Campaign.

"During the debate we saw history being made with LGBTI members from all major parties leading the debate. Our supporters in parliament stared down efforts by religious conservatives to introduce new forms of discrimination against LGBTI people," she added.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the postal vote in the face of opposition from hardliners who refused to back a national plebiscite on the issue. 

The move was opposed by proponents of same-sex marriage, who wanted direct legislative action.

They said the lengthy vote process was both a waste of money –- it cost just under Aus$100 million (US$76 million) -– and exposed gay people and their families to hate speech.

Turnbull, a moderate conservative who backed the "yes" camp, hailed the result of the non-binding vote, vowing to pass the bill legalizing marriage equality "before Christmas".

The campaign proved divisive, with big business, major sporting codes, religious bodies and even international music artists criticized for taking sides on the issue.

Liberal senator Dean Smith, who tabled the bill, thanked all sides of politics Wednesday for what he called a "respectful" but "not an insipid" debate.

"This debate has been good for the soul of the country," he said. "It has been good for the soul of this chamber, and it will be good for the souls of LGBTI children throughout our great country." –