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Australia senator starts gay marriage debate day after poll

ROD McGUIRK
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Members of the gay community and their supporters celebrate the result of a postal survey calling for gay marriage right in Sydney, Australia, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Australians supported gay marriage in a postal survey that ensures Parliament will consider legalizing same-sex weddings this year. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A gay lawmaker on Thursday started the Australian Parliament's debate on legal recognition for same-sex marriage with an emotional speech in which he warned against attempts at winding back LGBT rights, a day after voters backed marriage equality.

Dean Smith, a senator with the ruling conservative Liberal Party, 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. The bill comes as same-sex marriage opponents look to do the opposite.

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

The move came a day after the results of an unprecedented mail survey showed that 62 percent of registered voters who responded supported gay marriage, ensuring Parliament will consider legalizing such weddings this year. The poll was nonbinding, but Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull wants gay marriage legislation rushed through by Dec. 7, the last day Parliament is to sit for the year.

Same-sex marriage opponents want any legislation 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 to add new free-speech protections for those who denounce gay marriage.

Smith told the Senate that was unacceptable.

"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," he said.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in Australia outside religious institutions.

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.

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.

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 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."

The first gay marriage opponent to speak in the debate, Cory Bernardi, leader of the minor Australian Conservatives party, urged senators to protect religious liberty, freedom of speech and parents' right to remove children from teachings that parents conscientiously object to.

"I think there are unforeseen consequences in this," Bernardi said of gay marriage. "I'm happy to be proved wrong."

Government minister Matt Canavan, another marriage equality opponent, later told the Senate that "the bill as presented does not go far enough to protect fundamental freedom of religion and parental rights."

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 applauded by senators and was followed by a succession of a dozen senators who all spoke in favor of gay marriage and supported the bill before Bernardi spoke.