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New law regulates wedding chapels

Las Vegas finally has a new ordinance governing wedding chapels following months of legal knots, civil liberties concerns and occasional sniping among chapel owners.

The ordinance establishes “handbilling zones” outside the downtown Las Vegas Marriage Bureau where chapel employees can pass out advertisements while leaving part of the sidewalk clear for couples to come and go as they please. It also sets stricter licensing requirements for new wedding chapels.

“I think this bill will help us be a little more proactive in policing what goes on at the courthouse,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese. “We have an industry that has made Las Vegas famous, but the last couple of years it’s been famous in a negatory way.”

Several chapels use handbilling extensively to catch couples who have their marriage paperwork but haven’t settled on a chapel yet.

In recent years, complaints have multiplied that rival chapel workers are going overboard trying to snare customers, to the point that couples feel hemmed in and harassed when entering or leaving the marriage bureau.

The ordinance takes effect Saturday, but enforcement will probably start in earnest when lines delineating the zones are painted on the sidewalk, said city attorney Brad Jerbic.

At one point, officials thought that state law might ban all handbilling in front of the courthouse because it was thought that the sidewalks out front were courthouse property, and it’s technically illegal to solicit marriage services on courthouse property.

It turned out that only about half the sidewalk is courthouse property, Jerbic said, with the rest falling under city right of way.

In either case, the ACLU of Nevada voiced strenuous objections to any effort to try to ban handbilling, saying that sidewalks are public areas where free speech can’t be unreasonably restricted.

And chapel owners were far from unanimous. Those who use handbilling were wary of any new restriction, and the licensing changes for new chapels — which require background checks and City Council approval — had some complaining of overreaching regulation.

The ordinance is part of the fallout from the Las Vegas Garden of Love chapel, which was shut down last year following years of complaints of employees using harassment and even violence to control the corner outside the marriage bureau.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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