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.
"What a day. What a day for love, for equality, for respect. Australia has done it," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Parliament.
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.
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."
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.
Gay marriage was endorsed by 62 percent 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. The U.N. Human Rights Committee had called the ballot survey "an unnecessary and divisive public opinion poll."
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.