CARSON CITY -- On the wall of their Henderson home, Brittney Leon and Terri-Ann Simonelli proudly display their certificate of domestic partnership.
Under a 2009 state law, the document gives them all the rights of married couples.
Or so they thought.
When Leon, 26, checked into Spring Valley Hospital on July 20 with complications in her pregnancy, she assumed that her partner Simonelli, 41, could make any necessary medical decisions if she suffered unforeseen problems.
But that's not what happened, they said. An admissions officer told them the hospital policy required gay partners to secure power of attorney before making any medical decisions for each other.
They protested, even offering to go home and return with their domestic partnership document. But they said the admissions officer told them that didn't matter - Simonelli would need a power of attorney. Considering Leon's condition, Simonelli wasn't in a position to argue or spend hours running to a law office. But the admission officer's words left them devastated in a moment that they already were under extreme stress.
Leon ended up losing her baby.
"I am usually a big fighter. But I was so emotionally upset. It was a very bad day for us," said Simonelli, a hotel parking valet and website designer. "We went there thinking we had the state's backing, and then we were told we were wrong. It didn't matter that we were registered domestic partners.
"It should matter."
A woman who identified herself as public relations representative at Spring Valley Hospital told a Review-Journal reporter in a phone interview that the hospital policy requires gay couples have power of attorney in order to make medical decisions for each other .
When asked if she was aware of Nevada's domestic partnership law, she accused the reporter of bias and hung up the telephone.
That law states: "Domestic partners have the same rights, protections and benefits, and are subject to the same responsibilities, obligations and duties under law, whether derived from statutes, administrative regulations, court rules, government policies, common law or any other provisions or sources of law, as are granted to and imposed upon spouses."
Gay marriage is prohibited in Nevada by constitutional amendment, so domestic partners are not considered legally married. But they have the same rights under law as married couples. The only difference is that employers do not have to provide health care benefits to gay couples, even if they are provided to married, heterosexual couples.
During hearings on the domestic partners bill, proposed by state Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, numerous gay couples testified that the law was needed in part because they had been denied the right to make medical decisions for their partners, or to stay with them in the hospital.
There is no specific penalty for businesses that discriminate against domestic partners. They can file complaints with Nevada Equal Rights Commission, which investigates and tries to reach an agreement with the business to follow the law.
Shelley Chinchilla, the administrator of the commission, said she knows of only one complaint filed by a domestic partner that accused a business of violating the law.
ADDING TEETH TO THE LAW
Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said he may propose a bill next year that would put more "teeth" in laws designed to stop discrimination against gay and transgender people. Those who discriminate against them need to be subject to penalties, he said.
"What really happens now if they deny your rights? Not much," he said. "We need a remedy."
Segerblom, a lawyer, wants a "private right of action" for those who believe they are victims of discrimination. That would allow them to hire lawyers to sue the offending businesses for damages.
"The first time this happens, other businesses will come around quickly," he said. "The word will get out."
Simonelli and Leon suggested two other changes that might help:
■ Requiring businesses to sign a statement saying they have read and will follow the domestic partner law.
■ Issuing a state ID card, like a driver's license, to domestic partners. Then they can show this card if a business wants proof of their legal relationship.
"If a straight couple says 'This is my husband,' no one questions it. I shouldn't have to prove who I am," Leon said. "But maybe the state could give us a little card or ID."
Segerblom said those aren't bad ideas, although he questions the fairness of requiring a domestic partner show a card when businesses just accept the word of other couples that they are married.
"People don't have to show their marriage certificate," he said. "They (domestic partners) should be treated like every other person. We need to make them comfortable that they have all the rights of others."
NO COMPLAINTS WILL BE FILED
Leon and Simonelli said they don't intend to file a complaint or lawsuit against Spring Valley Hospital. They just hope their problem will lead to more awareness of the domestic partnership law and for fair treatment of gay people.
Despite the problem during the admission process, they said they were treated excellently by the hospital doctors and nurses. Since the doctor knew the couple, she updated Simonelli periodically with what was happening when Leon was in surgery. Leon lost a lot of blood and was required to stay overnight, but did not need a transfusion.
But Leon said her doctor had to leave to attend another birth. During those 90 minutes, Simonelli wasn't told what was happening to her partner. She finally asked a nurse and was told Leon was in the recovery room. They questioned whether a heterosexual spouse would have had to wait that long before finding out what happened to his or her spouse.
SIX YEARS TOGETHER
Leon and Simonelli have been together for six years. Their parents and 99 percent of the people they encounter accept their relationship. Leon even received get-well cards from her clients, many of whom now ask her how Simonelli is doing.
"We understand there are people out there who are not going to welcome us with open arms," Simonelli said. "That it fine, but when it comes to a business, like a hospital, treat us fairly. When you step into a hospital, you are in a very vulnerable state."
Looking back, Leon is amused by one requirement imposed by the hospital.
When she checked in, she said, the administration officer asked for her insurance. She is insured through Simonelli's policy from her job at a Strip hotel. Leon said the hospital readily accepted the insurance, and the officer even asked for Simonelli's Social Security number.
"They wanted to be sure they would get paid," she said.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.