CARSON CITY -- Only a handful of spectators watched Sunday night as the Assembly voted 28-14 to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' veto of a bill that establishes a domestic partnership law in Nevada.
That vote, with the state Senate's 14-7 rejection of the veto Saturday, makes Senate Bill 283 a law that takes effect on Oct. 1.
Under the new law, same-sex and opposite-sex couples can go to the secretary of state's office, sign a registry, pay a fee and secure a domestic partnership contract that essentially gives them the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples.
Domestic partnerships, or civil unions, are not the same as same-sex marriages, which are now legal in five states. A constitutional amendment approved by Nevada voters in 2002 specifies that a marriage can be between a man and a woman only.
Domestic partners do not need to solemnize their unions under the law but are free to choose to do so if they want. Employers are not required to offer medical and other benefits to domestic partner couples but may do so if they wish.
"I'm immensely pleased that the veto of the governor has been overridden," said state Sen. David Parks, the sponsor of the bill. "It's a great day for fairness and equality in Nevada."
Unlike the emotional debate that took place in the state Senate, only Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, made a speech on SB283 in the quiet Assembly chambers.
"This is the most important civil rights legislation we've had in all my years in the Legislature," Leslie said. "It is an issue of fairness for our citizens."
In overriding the veto, two Assembly members, Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Jerry Claborn, D-Las Vegas, cast affirmative votes. The two did not vote for the bill when it was approved 26-14 last month in the Assembly. Claborn was absent for the first vote, and Kirkpatrick voted no.
All 28 Democratic Assembly members except Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, voted to override the veto. Of the 14 Republicans, only Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, backed the override.
Kirkpatrick declined to give reasons for changing her vote.
Goedhart said he backed the bill because it was the right thing to do.
"I don't consider this bill to be marriage," he said. "It is nothing more than a domestic partnership. It provides equality."
Harrah's Entertainment had lobbied legislators to reject Gibbons' veto of the domestic partner bill.
The gaming company and other resorts had feared that gays and lesbians, who have $700 billion in disposable income, might boycott Nevada if the bill were rejected.
Tod Story, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Las Vegas, expects thousands of couples will become legal domestic partners.
"This is an historic day for Nevada, a remarkable and amazing day for equality and the recognition of civil rights of domestic partners," he said.
During the state Senate debate, Parks said that senior citizens in particular could benefit from domestic partnerships.
"Our state is a haven for opposite-sex senior citizens who have retired here," said Parks, who is the only openly gay legislator. "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."
With the partnerships, similar to civil unions, couples can make decisions about wills, inheritances and health care for each other.
Gibbons remains opposed to domestic partnerships, but his spokesman said he believes the overrides were a good example of the proper functioning of government.
"In vetoing the bill, the governor stood up for what he believes in," said Daniel Burns, Gibbons' communications director. "The Legislature took up for what it believed in. The system worked the way it was supposed to work."
Burns said Gibbons, who signed a bill prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of one's sexual orientation, does not oppose same- or opposite-sex couples securing all rights and responsibilities but did not consider the bill necessary.
Gibbons contended couples can secure the same rights through private contracts.
But Parks said such contracts could cost a couple more than $5,000 and might not stand up if challenged in court.
Contacted in Las Vegas, Richard Ziser, a conservative activist who led the drive for the constitutional amendment that specifies a marriage is between a man and a woman, said his supporters need to regroup and then decide on their next step.
"The legislators have kind of gotten away from the moral arguments that people have against the relationships that have been established in this law," he said. "It is sad when votes get traded. I guess if they are going to deal away their consciences, that is their right."
But Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, thinks Sunday will be a day to remember.
"This is a proud day in Nevada history," Peck said. "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."
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada called the vote the most significant vote for equality and civil rights by the Nevada Legislature since ratification of women's suffrage in 1914.
"The only way for our state to treat its citizens is as equals under the law," PLAN lobbyist Jan Gilbert said.
"We know that each and every day, same-sex couples are harmed when our government tells them that their families don't count, and today this will no longer be the case in Nevada."
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.