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Nevada’s ‘religious freedom’ legislation declared dead


Nevada legislation criticized as giving businesses and corporations a license to discriminate against gay customers appears to have fizzled in light of nationwide outrage over similar “religious freedom” bills in Arkansas and Indiana.

Silver State officials opposing the bill in Carson City gained a high-profile backer late Thursday.

“The Governor believes that this bill is not necessary because the interests of all Nevadans are protected under current law,” Mari St. Martin, spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday night.

Even the bill sponsors are backing away from it.

“After careful reflection and consultation with legislative counsel, I have determined that Nevada’s Constitution already contains adequate safeguards and protections for the civil liberties of Nevada’s citizens, and further legislative emphasis of these rights would be unnecessary,” freshman legislator and Assembly Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Erven Nelson, R-Las Vegas, said Thursday.

The reaction to Indiana’s legislation was a factor in deciding to withdraw the bill, Nelson said.

“We obviously do not want to have happen in Nevada what’s been threatened to happen in Indiana as far as a boycott and things like that.”

Nelson was among a handful of Republicans who sponsored Assembly Bill 277 and Senate Bill 272, matching bills that seek to establish the Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act. Assembly Government Affairs Committee Chairman John Ellison, R-Elko, and Sen. Joseph Hardy, R-Boulder City, who is president pro tempore of the Senate, were also sponsors.

Hardy said Thursday he’s “not anxious to be in contention,” and the controversy over the bills in Indiana and Arkansas “brought this above the level of contention.”

“The bill’s going nowhere, obviously,” he said.

But Hardy stood by the reason he sponsored the bill.

“If we force somebody who’s in a small business to do something that is going to literally violate what they consider their religion, then we are picking on them, which is different than trying to protect somebody else,” he said.

“Personally, I take care of people of all genders, all types of initials,” said Hardy, who is a doctor. “And I love all people. That’s what I do.”

The bills would have allowed parties involved in a judicial or administrative proceeding to claim that state action has burdened the exercise of their religion, even if the dispute is between private parties and the state is not involved.

THE NATIONAL DEBATE

Indiana sparked a firestorm when Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed his state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law on March 26. People angered by the law’s perceived intolerance launched a boycott through social media, while New York and Connecticut and some cities banned official travel to the Hoosier state. Large companies protested, with Angie’s List, an online consumer ratings company, canceling a 1,000-job expansion in the state.

Arkansas faced similar struggles, with Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which is headquartered in Bentonville, questioning whether that state’s bill would send the wrong message.

On Thursday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed his state’s religious freedom bill, saying it recognizes workforce diversity. The same day, Pence signed a revised version of Indiana’s law, which now states it does not authorize a provider to refuse to do business with anyone.

The rising furor over whether such laws give businesses leave to discriminate against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender left many Nevadans wondering if the Silver State was in for similar troubles. The state’s economy relies on tourism, some of which is specifically marketed to LGBT tourists.

BUSINESS OPPOSITION

The Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs had been watching the issue closely, according to tourism board spokeswoman Bethany Drysdale.

“Tourism is Nevada’s No. 1 industry, employing more than 460,000 Nevadans,” she said earlier in the week. “We closely monitor any legislation that could affect tourism, and our understanding is that the bills have only been sent to committee and could undergo changes in the legislative process.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority deferred to the comments of opponents of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union and national gay rights groups. Spokesman Jeremy Handler said the agency doesn’t track the number of LGBT tourists, but pointed to the fact that Las Vegas is consistently ranked among the top markets for gay travel.

Some Las Vegas-based gaming leaders operating in Indiana, including Caesars Entertainment Corp., Boyd Gaming Corp., Pinnacle Entertainment and Full House Resorts, spoke out against the Indiana law Tuesday.

“We actively oppose any forms of discriminatory legislation,” Caesars Senior Vice President Jan Jones Blackhurst told the Review-Journal.

The company, which owns the Horseshoe Southern Indiana in Elizabeth and Horseshoe Casino Hammond in the Hoosier state, has been one of the gaming industry’s pioneers in marketing to customers from the LGBT community and supported efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Nevada.

Critics have said the religious freedom measures are part of a broader effort in socially conservative states to push back against a series of U.S. court decisions allowing same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to take up the issue this month.

A ‘DIVISIVE’ BILL

Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, called the bill unnecessary and divisive earlier this week.

“Freedom of religion is already protected by the First Amendment,” Story said Tuesday. The state constitution also has a clause guaranteeing Nevadans’ religious freedom. Story said religious conflicts do arise in Nevada – he used battles over Kosher meals for prisoners as an example – but the First Amendment already gives people facing such conflicts a way to seek legal remedies.

Story said a similar Nevada bill was defeated in the 2013 session, but noted the Legislature was a lot different then. In 2014, the Republicans gained majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly.

The ACLU partnered with businesses and grassroots organizers like the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) to form the NV Biz 4 All coalition, which was prepared to testify and demonstrate against the measure.

Story also commented on two important differences between Nevada and Indiana. For one, Nevada’s economy relies on its visitors and its reputation for being a state that’s easy to do business in. “I don’t know who, worse than us, would be impacted. We are a tourism-based economy,” he said. “If you’re going to do business here, you can’t discriminate.”

Nevada also already has LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws. The state’s public accommodations law, which prohibits commercial businesses and other entities from discriminating based on sexual orientation, among other factors, was first passed in 1965.

This is something many in the Las Vegas Valley were reminded of after the state was forced to allow same-sex marriages following a federal court ruling in October. Religious institutions have a First Amendment right to refuse to marry same-sex couples, but commercial businesses, including Nevada wedding chapels, do not.

President Bill Clinton signed the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act in 1993, but the Supreme Court ruled that the act only applies to federal laws. Dozens of states have since passed or considered similar measures. The religious freedom act became a hot topic last year after the Supreme Court ruled the Hobby Lobby corporation did not have to provide birth control as part of the health insurance plan offered to female employees because of the religious convictions of its owners.

LGBT people are protected by nondiscrimination laws, but family planning isn’t a protected class, Story said.

PLAN’s Laura Martin called the bills “legislated hatred.”

“I don’t think small businesses want this,” she said. “Nevada is a tourist destination. They’re supposed to welcome everyone. I don’t think Governor Sandoval wants to be known for that.”

Reuters and Review-Journal writers Sean Whaley and Sandra Chereb contributed to this report. Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Find him on Twitter: @WesJuhl

 

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