US envoy confident Australia will manage gay marriage debate

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The first openly gay U.S. ambassador to Australia said on June 30 he was confident that the “great debate” among Australians on whether to allow gay marriages would result in the best outcome for the country.

Ambassador John Berry, 56, who has been a gay rights activist most of his life, told reporters that Australia had led the United States on providing rights to gays including equal rights in the military, employment, health care benefits and visitation rights in hospitals.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court last week voted to legalize gay marriages in the entire nation, “for a short period of time, we may lap you for a little bit,” Berry said at an Independence Day reception at the U.S. embassy.

The comment indicated that he is confident the Australian parliament would lift a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage during a vote is expected later this year. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is opposed to gay marriage, is unlikely to use his influence to veto the draft law.

Australian lawmakers appear evenly split over the proposal to lift the ban, although the U.S. Supreme Court decision has added to the momentum for change.

Gay rights advocates point out that after Ireland voted to legalize gay marriage at a referendum in May, Australia is left as the only developed English-speaking country that bans same-sex marriage.

Berry, who married his husband Curtis Lee in a church in Washington in 2013, did not directly answer when asked if he thought marriage equality was inevitable in Australia.

“Australia, I know, is in the midst of a great debate right now. We wish you well in that debate. I have every confidence and trust and faith in the people of Australia that that debate will end for the best for Australia,” Berry said.

“I see no impediments in terms of equality in Australia,” he added.

But Abbott, who attended the embassy event held in advance of the American Independence Day on July 4, maintained his opposition to gay marriage.

“Obviously, I’ve got views myself. I’ve put those views forward at different times and they haven’t changed,” he said.

Berry said he went to bed June 26 and “our marriage was recognized in 37 states.” Canberra is 14 hours ahead of Washington DC. “I woke up on June 27 and it was recognized in all 50, so it was a really exciting day for us,” said he added.

While gays are banned from marrying in Australia and Berry’s marriage is not recognized, around 100 Australian laws were recently amended to ensure that same-sex couples had the same rights as heterosexual couples on issues such as taxation, pensions and welfare payments.

Same sex-marriage was, however, soundly rejected by the House of Representatives in 2012, 98 votes to 42. But even that vote was a significant shift away from the bipartisan rejection of marriage equality in 2004.

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