CANBERRA, Australia — Nov 15, 2017, 9:01 PM ET

Australian Senate debates gays rights in marriage bill

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A gay lawmaker on Thursday started the Australian Parliament's debate on legal recognition for same-sex marriage with an emotion speech in which he warned against winding back LGBT rights.

Dean Smith, a senator with the ruling conservative Liberal Party, has introduced a bill that would limit who could legally refuse to take part in same-sex marriage to churches, religious ministers and a new class of religious celebrants.

But many same-sex marriage opponents want amendments to broaden the range of businesses and individuals who can legally refuse to provide services such as cakes, flowers or a venue to same-sex couples and new free-speech protections for those who denounce gay marriage. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in Australia outside religious institutions.

"Let me be clear: Amendments that seek to address other issues, or which seek to deny gay and lesbian Australians the full rights, responsibilities and privileges that they already have will be strenuously opposed," Smith told the Senate.

"Australians did not vote for equality before the law so that equality before the law that is already gained be stripped away," he added.

Another Liberal Party senator, James Paterson, had won the support of lawmakers who oppose marriage reform with a proposed bill that offered "a limited right of conscientious objection to ensure no one is forced to participate in a same-sex wedding against their sincerely held beliefs." It also would safeguard speaking out against gay marriage and would bar government agencies from acting against people who hold such views.

The Law Council Of Australia, the nation's peak lawyers group, said Paterson's bill "would encroach on Australia's long-established anti-discrimination protections in a dangerous and unprecedented way."

Paterson decided to not introduce his bill because senators favored Smith's bill as the starting point for the debate, but many lawmakers will argue for contentious features of Paterson's bill to be incorporated in Smith's bill as amendments.

The Senate debate began a day after the release of a nonbinding postal survey found that 62 percent of Australian respondents wanted reform. Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull wants gay marriage legislation rushed through by Dec. 7, the last day Parliament is to sit for the year.

The postal survey result sparked street parties across Australia overnight and most marriage equality opponents have accepted that the Parliament now has a clear mandate for change.

Cabinet Minister Christopher Pyne on Thursday suggested his Twitter account had been hacked overnight as a consequence of his vocal support for marriage equality.

Pyne said the hack explained his Twitter account liking a pornographic gay video.

"I was hacked overnight!" Pyne tweeted, adding that he was asleep at 2 a.m. local time when the "like" was posted.

"Someone tried to hack my social media yesterday. Maybe they are making mischief" over the postal survey, he said.

Smith came close to tears during his speech as he said he once thought Australia would never embrace marriage equality.

"I never believed the day would come when my relationship would be judged by my country to be as meaningful and valued as any other," Smith said. "The Australian people have proven me wrong."

"To those who want and believe in change and to those who seek to frustrate it, I simply say: Don't underestimate Australia, don't underestimate the Australian people, don't underestimate our country's sense of fairness, its sense of decency and its willingness to be a country for all of us," he added.

Smith's speech was followed a successions of eight senators who all spoke in favor of gay marriage and supported the bill before the debate was adjourned until later Thursday .

Smith had supported his party's opposition to gay marriage when he joined the Senate five years ago. He has said he changed his mind after a siege in a Sydney cafe in 2014 in which a gunman killed cafe manager Tori Johnson. Police then killed the gunman and another hostage died in the crossfire. Smith said he was moved by Johnson's loving same-sex relationship.

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  • Quantez Williams

    I do not support the right of bakeries to discriminate, but they should not be required to write messages on cakes. The logic is that, merely baking/decorating a cake (minus a written message) is not an expression of speech; rather, it's the provision of a service/product.

    However, writing actual messages constitutes speech. No one should be compelled to express a thought with which they do not agree.

  • brickmette

    I say that the church(es) are fully within their rights to abstain from performing same-sex marriages.
    But it's unfortunate when, out of sheer habit, same-sex couples cling to an organization which condemns them for being as they are. A civil, legal union, conducted among friends who understand and accept same-sex relationships is far more important and far more satisfying.
    The church(es) can go to their hell.

  • Get -a-clue

    All I can say is... "Good on ya!" Good luck to you.

  • WorkingClass

    Marriage is not religious, it's civil. You and your partner sign a contract that is given out by the government. You even need witnesses to the signing of that contract. Churches should have no say in the matter. All they do is provide a silly, outdated ceremony that isn't even required.