The Upper House of the Parliament in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has called on the federal government to allow gay couples to marry and to allow religious bodies to perform ceremonies if they choose.

The Legislative Council in Sydney approved the motion tabled by Greens MP Cate Faehrmann by 22 to 16 in a free vote.

The upper house of the state legislature called on the federal government in Canberra to amend the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961, acknowledged religious differences, called “on all participants in the debate on marriage equality to treat those with differing views with respect, dignity and tolerance” and asked the government to ensure religious faiths would not be compelled to marry gay couples against their will.

Ms Faehrmann said: “This is a great day. I congratulate my NSW Upper House colleagues for their leadership. Today we are on the right side of history.

“Denying anyone the right to marry who they love is ludicrous. It’s last century and it’s time our Federal Parliament caught up. The NSW Legislative Council, Australia’s oldest House of Parliament, has shown great leadership in sending this clear message to the Commonwealth today.”

Ms Faehrmann said that although the motion was symbolic and did not enact or alter any existing laws immediately, it was “immensely significant”.

She said: “Today we have given voice to the majority of NSW citizens who don’t want our marriage laws to discriminate.

“Every single step towards full equality is to be welcomed and congratulated enthusiastically. I want to thank all of my colleagues who supported the motion, and acknowledge that for many, this was a very difficult motion to contend with.

“In the end, the arguments against marriage equality are based on personal and religious beliefs that have no place in our civil marriage laws. It’s time for full equality and the NSW Upper House has made that clear.”

Australian Marriage Equality national convener, Alex Greenwich, said the vote should encourage the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, to allow MPs in his Liberal/National coalition a free vote on marriage as Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised Labour MPs.

Mr Greenwich said: “We congratulate NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell for allowing Coalition MPs to vote in support of this motion in accordance with their conservative pro-family principles.

“Today’s vote increases pressure on Tony Abbott to allow a conscience vote for the growing number of federal Coalition MPs who also support this issue.”

Mr Greenwich also said Australia had reached a “landmark moment” with the recently announced support of Greg Combet where more than half of the country’s 22 Cabinet ministers now favour equal marriage laws between gay and straight couples.