CARSON CITY -- Las Vegans Earl Shelton and Richard Kuta are not considered married, but they will have virtually all the rights of married couples as a result of Nevada's new domestic partnership law taking effect today.
"We feel sheer and utter joy about the law," said Shelton, publisher of QVegas, an information magazine for Southern Nevada gays and lesbians.
"Passing it was another footstep in the right direction."
About 700 same- and opposite-sex couples are scheduled to receive certificates today recognizing them as legal domestic partners. Shelton and Kuta will be among them.
Gay and lesbian couples look at today as historic in their quest to secure civil rights. Seven years ago, such a day might not have seemed possible after two-thirds of Nevadans approved the Protection of Marriage constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
"This is one of those situations that I never thought would happen," said Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, the only openly gay member of the Legislature. "Our society has moved forward."
With passage of Parks' bill, Nevada became one of 12 states that permit gay and lesbian couples to secure domestic partnerships. Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont allow same-sex couples to marry. New Hampshire will permit same-sex marriages starting Jan. 1.
Language in the enabling bill, Senate Bill 283, specifies that gay and lesbian couples in Nevada are not considered married, but enjoy other rights married couples have.
Those rights include the ability to make health care decisions for each other, hold community property and not be required to testify against a partner in court cases.
The law also states that companies that offer health care benefits to their employees may provide benefits to their domestic partners, though that is not required.
The Nevada domestic partner statute does not affect federal laws. That means a person cannot claim a partner as a spouse to file a joint income tax return or secure Social Security benefits of a deceased partner.
Secretary of State Ross Miller and Parks will be on hand at the state Capitol this morning and at the Sawyer Building in Las Vegas in the afternoon to hand out domestic partner certificates.
Most couples, however, are having them sent to their residences. The couples who will receive the initial certificates are those who pre-registered for domestic partnership between Aug. 24 and Sept. 24.
Richard Ziser, who led the drive in Nevada to define marriage in the state constitution as being between a man and a woman, said no decision has been made by his Coalition for Protection of Marriage organization to challenge the domestic partnership law.
Lawyers told him it would be easier to overturn the law through a public referendum rather by going to court. But public referendums require petition gathering, which is very costly, Ziser added.
Tod Story, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Las Vegas, said passage of the domestic partnership law shows Nevada remains a "live and let live state."
He and his longtime partner will receive their domestic partnership certificate today.
"What same sex couples are trying to accomplish is equal rights," Story said. "We want to have the opportunity to have our relationships recognized by law and to be treated equally."
George Flint, the owner of a wedding chapel in Reno and legislative lobbyist for the industry, said his and other chapels will offer commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.
"This is really a good thing for Nevada," Flint said. "When we have a commitment ceremony, they will first sign a statement that it is nothing more than a blessing, not a marriage. But it makes them feel good."
Flint expects as time goes on more opposite-sex couples will file for domestic partnerships.
Parks added domestic partnerships also will help older people, especially women, who live in the same home and may not even have a romantic relationship. Through domestic partnerships, they could make medical decisions for each other.
Miller said the 700 couples who so far have sought the certificate exceeded his expectations. It is about twice the number as in Wisconsin, a state with a domestic partner law and with a much larger population than Nevada.
"We really didn't know how many to expect," he added.
Nationally there are about 150,000 same-sex couples who reported last year that they were in a relationship akin to that of married couples, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau study. Las Vegas lawyer Jim Shaw conducted about 12 seminars with gay and lesbian groups about the new law. He found people were eager to learn about it. The biggest questions were whether other states would recognize Nevada domestic partners and whether Nevada would recognize their civil unions, according to Shaw.
"There are a lot of uncertainties," he said. "There is no yes or no answer."
The domestic partnership law says Nevada won't recognize same-sex marriages from other states but will recognize unions similar to our domestic partnerships. For Nevada to recognize another state's domestic union, the law says, the couple needs to secure a domestic partnership in Nevada.
Reno employment lawyer Anthony Hall also expects litigation will eventually be filed regarding same-sex couples who are denied Federal Family Leave Act benefits. This federal law grants spouses up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for sick husbands or wives.
Although Nevada law does not give federal rights to domestic partners, the Family Leave Act itself states the leave will be granted by states to spouses according to how they define a husband or wife.
Hall said this could mean a case can be made that Nevada's domestic partners should receive family leave benefits.
"It is a big open question in employment law," Hall said.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.