Senate committee approves plan to legalize gay marriages in Nevada

CARSON CITY — A panel of state lawmakers on Thursday took the first step in a long road to legalizing gay marriage in Nevada.

A resolution that would seek voter approval to amend the state constitution to repeal a ban on same-sex marriage and instead authorize such unions won approval on a 3-2 party line vote in the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Senate Joint Resolution 13 now goes to the full Senate for consideration and, if successful, on to the Assembly.

The proposed constitutional amendment was changed from simple repeal, however, by Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. The resolution as amended would replace the repealed section with new language requiring the state and its political subdivisions to recognize marriages and issue marriage licenses to couples regardless of their gender.

“All legally valid marriages shall be treated equally under the law,” the amended resolution states.

The change is significant. The original measure would have required the Legislature in 2017, if the repeal was approved by voters in 2016, to attempt the politically charged task of moving forward with legislation legalizing gay marriage. The new constitutional language would recognize such marriages if voters approve the change.

“This takes it out of the political realm,” Segerblom said, in explaining the reason for the new language to the committee.

“We don’t have to come back and put it into statute,” he said after the vote. “It will just make it clearer what the voters’ intentions are. It takes it off the table. We don’t have to worry about it ever again. It’s a done deal, and we can all go about our business and get out of people’s lives.”

Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, a member of the committee, said he supported the previous proposal to strike the gay marriage ban from the constitution. But Settelmeyer said he could not support adding the new language proposed by Segerblom, which he said came without warning.

The issue of marriage should not be in the state constitution, Settelmeyer said.

Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, an openly gay member of the Legislature, said the new language is likely the cleanest way to move forward.

“I think it is very positive,” he said. “We’ll put it back in the hands of the voters and let the voters decide if this is what they want. Very simply, I think it’s great.”

But Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, who testified in support of the original proposal, said he will have to read the new language before deciding whether to support it. He was not given the opportunity to review it ahead of time.

The vote won praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

“We applaud the committee for moving this important equal rights legislation forward and commend them for recognizing the rights of all loving couples to marry the person they choose,” said Tod Story, interim executive director of the organization.

The constitutional ban took effect after a majority of Nevada voters twice approved an initiative petition in 2000 and 2002.

Lawmakers, religious officials, gay and lesbian Nevadans and representatives of the gaming community spoke in support of ending the ban in a hearing on the original measure a few weeks ago.

But others testified in opposition, with witnesses questioning the reliability of the recent poll results in Nevada and nationally showing support for gay marriage. A recent poll conducted by the Retail Association of Nevada found that 54 percent of voters want the state constitutional ban on gay marriage repealed, while 43 percent want it to stay in place.

Segerblom said in his previous testimony that Nevada is losing out on revenue that could come to the state by allowing gay marriage.

Nevada is the marriage capital of the world, and to prohibit a large percentage of the population from getting married here is “ridiculous,” he said.

The measure has a long way to go before it could take effect.

The resolution will have to be passed by the Legislature twice, in this session and in 2015, and then go to the voters in 2016.

The resolution can be sent to voters by the Legislature by simple majority vote. It does not require approval from Gov. Brian Sandoval. Even so, Sandoval has said that he supports a public vote on repealing the constitutional ban. It is not clear whether he will support the new language.

Nevada has a domestic partnership law because of action by the 2009 Legislature. It gives gay couples most of the rights and privileges of heterosexual married couples, but advocates want the right to legally marry.