A cross-party senate committee in Australia has published recommendations for a free vote on marriage equality legislation in the country’s federal parliament and called on senators to support the move.

The legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee in the Senate said today had received 46,000 pro-marriage equality submissions, nearly 60% of all submissions received. A similar report in the House of Representatives last week made no recommendations.

In its report, the committee said it was “overwhelmingly apparent” from submissions that gay couples “feel that the current definition of marriage in the Marriage Act discriminates against them because they are denied the fundamental social, cultural, psychological, administrative and legal benefits that marriage can provide”.

It went on: “As a result, and on balance, the committee strongly supports legislation to provide for marriage equality in Australia, on the basis that it will remove discrimination in this important area for same-sex couples.

“In saying this, the committee acknowledges the significance of the institution of marriage and the place that it holds in Australian society. The committee considers that allowing all couples access to marriage – regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity – will only strengthen the institution of marriage, and increase its value and importance.”

The report recommends 4-2 that a private member’s bill, the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010, be passed into law with a clause expressly protecting religious ministers’ existing right to refuse to solemnise marriages as they choose.

It was introduced into the Senate by Australian Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in 2010 and referred to the committee earlier this year. Senator Hanson-Young said it was a “historical day”.

Alex Greenwich, National Convener for Australian Marriage Equality said: “This is a watershed moment in the marriage equality debate because Coalition, Labor and Greens members of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee have joined forces to help progress a reform a majority of Australians want.”

One voting Coalition senator and one participating Coalition senator, both from the Liberal Party, endorsed the conscience vote recommendation despite their leader, Tony Abbott, indicating he will whip his MPs to oppose marriage equality.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has indicated she will allow Labor ministers a free vote, but without support from the Coalition, the bill will not pass.

Mr Greenwich said: “This report has given voice to the very powerful conservative case for same-sex marriage, and has also called on Mr Abbott to allow members of the Coalition the opportunity to vote for reform and express their support for marriage equality as conservatives.”

Professor the Rev Gary Bouma from Clergy for Marriage Equality, lobbying this week at Parliament, said : “We seek marriage equality to promote the ideal of committed, monogamous relationships, particularly among young people, gay or straight, as good for them, for society and for the family.”