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Nevada Legalizes Domestic Partnerships

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In the last two days of May, the Silver State’s legislature overrode Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto of a bill legalizing domestic partnerships by the barest number of necessary votes.


On May 30, the state’s Senate struck down Republican Gibbons’ veto of SB 283 on a 14-7 vote. In the late hours of May 31, the Assembly voted to override the veto by 28-14. Both votes totaled exactly the two-thirds majority needed to overturn such a veto. The bill gives unmarried same and opposite-sex couples virtually the same rights and responsibilities as married couples, including inheritance and community property rights, the ability to make health care decisions, and the responsibility of shared debt. It will become law on Oct. 1.

Senators debated the bill rigorously on May 30, with those in favor arguing that bill was a matter of fairness and making sure unmarried couples had protection under the law. Opponents contended that SB 283 went against the wishes of Nevada voters, who approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2002. While Democrats largely favored the bill, the vote did not split along party lines. Two Republican Senators, Dennis Nolan of Las Vegas and Dean Rhodes of Elko voted against the veto while Las Vegas Democrats John Lee and Terry Care voted in favor of it.

Nolan, who voted against SB 238 when it first appeared on the floor, said that he received several calls from straight couples who wished to enter into domestic partnerships. He also told the arguments put forth by casinos and resorts — including Harrah’s Entertainment — in favor of the bill helped change his perspective.

“Their message made sense. It is not marriage. It is a domestic partnership,” he told the Las Vegas Sun.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that casinos and resorts largely supported the bill out of concern that gays and lesbians would boycott Las Vegas if domestic partnerships weren’t legalized.

Nolan also said he received a number of “ugly, vulgar and threatening messages” from opponents of SB 283, which he said did not re-define marriage.

Previously, the bill’s sponsor, openly gay Democratic Sen. David Parks had also said that SB 283 did not violate the state’s gay marriage ban because the constitutional amendment does not forbid domestic partnerships or deny unmarried couples legal protections. He also noted that private contracts that some couples choose to secure such rights as inheritance or hospital visitation may be too costly for many couples, and may not hold up to legal challenges.

In the Senate debate, Parks also noted that his bill could help many straight couples, including retirees.

“Many of these folks have lost their previous spouses and often meet a second individual with whom to spend the balance of their lives, but do not wish to marry,” he said.

In contrast to the long debate on the Senate floor, only one member of the Assembly addressed the bill before the vote on May 31. In her remarks, Reno Democrat Sheila Leslie called SB 283 “the most important civil rights legislation we’ve had in all my years in the Legislature.”

Previously, the Assembly had approved the bill on a vote of 26-14. The two votes needed to override the veto came from Las Vegas Democrats Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Jerry Claborn. Claborn was absent during the first vote, and Kirkpatrick changed her previous no vote to a yes. She declined to comment on her reasons for doing so. Ultimately all Assembly Democrats save for Mo Denis of Las Vegas voted against the veto and all Republicans but Amargosa Valley’s Ed Goedhart sided with the governor.

 “I don’t consider this bill to be marriage,” Goedhart later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It is nothing more than a domestic partnership. It provides equality.”

Parks called the override “a great day for fairness and equality in Nevada.” Many gay and gay-friendly organizations echoed his sentiments, including the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

 

“This is a proud day in Nevada history,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.  “With its override, our Legislature has put our state on the side of a growing movement seeking to honor this country’s promise that everyone of us is entitled to equal treatment under the law.”
Opponents of SB 283, however, were not so enthusiastic.

“The legislators have kind of gotten away from the moral arguments that people have against the relationships that have been established in this law,” said Richard Ziser, who lead the movement for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage earlier this decade. “It is sad when votes get traded. I guess if they are going to deal away their consciences, that is their right.” He also noted that he and other opponents of the bill were considering what to do next.

Previously, Gibbons had signed a bill forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations. He said he vetoed SB 283 because he thought that same-sex couples could already secure legal protections through contracts.

Gibbons’ communications director, Daniel Burns, said the governor had no hard feelings over the Legislature’s vote.

“In vetoing the bill, the governor stood up for what he believes in,” he said. “The Legislature took up for what it believed in. The system worked the way it was supposed to work.”

Currently, seven states extend recognition and benefits to unmarried same-sex couples (including the District of Columbia), and 25 states total have at least one county or city that recognizes domestic partnerships. This includes Salt Lake City which opened its “mutual commitment” registry in 2008.

Gay marriage is legal or will be legal later this year in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Although Proposition 8 banned gay marriage in California, the state still recognizes domestic partnerships.

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