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Australia has voted by a significant majority to legalise same-sex marriage, paving the way for a social reform that has become a totemic issue for many western democracies.
Some 61.6 per cent of the electorate supported gay marriage in a non-binding postal survey, which was initially opposed by many advocates of reform over fears it would spark an homophobic backlash. Some 38.4 per cent of respondents opposed reform, which has been implemented in 26 countries to-date. Turnout was 79.5 per cent.
Tiernan Brady, director of Australians for equality, a lobby group that co-ordinated the Yes campaign, said the people had reaffirmed that most deeply held Australian value — a “fair go for all”.
“Their message today is one of confidence in their values and their country. Their message to LGBTI people is one of generosity and inclusion. Their message to politicians is clear — it is time for them to do their jobs and pass marriage equality,” he said.
The government, which proposed the A$100m survey in a bid to placate conservative opponents of marriage equality within its ranks, has promised to enable legislation to be tabled in parliament and allow a free vote of MPs.
A majority of parliamentarians support legalising same-sex marriage and Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, has indicated a draft bill may pass into law before Christmas. The opposition Labor party supports the draft bill, giving it a strong chance of passing through parliament.
However, a group of conservative lawmakers have published a rival bill that would give controversial exemptions to individuals or companies, who did not want to provide services to gay weddings due to religious or “conscientious” objections.
The rival bill would allow parents to withdraw their children from school classes that do not accord with their own understanding of marriage. It would also enable people to discuss their traditional views about marriage without fear of legal penalties.
Tony Abbott, a prominent no campaigner and former prime minister, said this week more protections were needed to guarantee freedom of conscience and freedom of religion than with the draft bill supported by Mr Turnbull and Labor.
Supporters hold placards at a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney © AFP
Critics say approving the bill would roll back years of anti-discrimination legislation and encroach on protections for gay and lesbian people.
“The bill would allow people to refuse to provide goods and services on the grounds of belief, thought and conscience taking us well beyond religious beliefs into uncharted waters,” said Fiona McLeod, Law Council of Australia president.
“You could potentially see a situation where a hire car company could leave their customers stranded on the way to a marriage ceremony simply because the driver held a thought or belief against it. This is even if the belief had nothing to do with religion.”
This post originally appeared on Financial Times