CARSON CITY — After an emotional debate that brought tears to the eyes of some lawmakers, state senators voted 14-7 Saturday evening to override Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto of the domestic partnership bill.
The bill, which goes to the Assembly for a final vote today, would allow same- and opposite sex couples to secure domestic partner contracts that essentially give them the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples.
The vote on Senate Bill 283 came following a dramatic speech by state Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, who said he had received many vulgar and even threatening calls from people who demanded that he vote against the bill.
Those kinds of calls do not mesh with "the Christian beliefs I was brought up with," Nolan said.
He added that the bill does not at all undermine the 2002 voter-approved constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
"We have an obligation to ensure equal rights to all our citizens," Nolan said. "I believe in my heart that I am doing the right thing,"
Nolan and state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, who both voted against the bill when it was passed April 21 on a 12-9 Senate vote, then joined the 12 original supporters to override Gibbons’ veto by the required two-thirds margin.
Rhoads said he got many e-mails from straight couples who would be helped by the bill and also was influenced by resort industry support of the measure.
"I think they made a good point," Rhoads said. "It isn’t marriage; it’s a domestic relationship. That’s what swung my vote that way."
Harrah’s Entertainment lobbied for the bill, contending that Las Vegas could lose the business of gays and lesbians if Gibbons’ veto was not rejected.
The bill today goes back to the Assembly, which originally approved the bill 26-14. Two members were absent when the first vote was taken.
Two-thirds of the Assembly, 28 members, must vote to override Gibbons’ veto or the bill dies.
Activists hope Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and one other lawmaker who initially voted against the bill will vote to override the veto, giving the bill the votes needed to become law.
During the first tally in the Assembly, Kirkpatrick voted against the bill.
Some supporters had hoped for a Saturday night vote in the Assembly. But Assemblyman James Ohrenschall became ill earlier in the day and was briefly hospitalized.
Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, supported SB283 in the first Assembly vote. He is expected to return to the Legislature today.
In asking senators to override the veto, state Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, noted that legislative lawyers, the attorney general’s office and numerous legal scholars opined that his bill does not conflict with the constitutional amendment making a marriage between a man and a woman.
Parks, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said domestic partnerships are civil contracts that ensure couples can make important financial and medical decisions for each other.
Securing private contracts to take care of these matters can be expensive and "there is no guarantee the contracts will stand up," Parks said.
He said the bill would be of particular help to senior citizens.
"Our state is a haven for opposite-gender senior citizens who have retired here," Parks said. "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 who do not wish to remarry."
Gibbons had vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was unconstitutional because it infringed on the 2002 voter-approved constitutional amendment.
State Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, a minister, blasted the bill, saying it thwarts the wishes of voters and is "against my character."
"We are saying to our citizens their votes do not matter," Washington said. "The bill is a slap in the face against the people of this great state."
Gary Peck, executive state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the vote.
"We are thrilled that the Senate had the vision to do the right thing to help ensure that every Nevadan has a better chance to live their lives responsibly and with the dignity we all deserve," Peck said. "We are optimistic that the Assembly will follow suit, and will thereby give everyone who cares about fairness and equality a chance to celebrate a great day in our state’s history."
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada also praised the vote.
"This was a resounding rejection of the governor’s intolerance and it is wonderful to finally have something to celebrate," said Jan Gilbert, a PLAN lobbyist.
Gay and lesbian organizations also saluted the state Senate override.
"Today, we are one step closer to legally recognizing committed couples in Nevada who currently cannot get married or choose not to get married, but want the opportunity to recognize their relationships under state Law and the protections that will provide them," said Tod Story, a Gay and Lesbian Community Center board member in Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel @reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.
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