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Equality moves forward after emotional Senate debate

The raw emotion and tension in the Nevada Senate on Monday night was obvious, whether one was in the room or watching from hundreds of miles away.

Senators were debating Senate Joint Resolution 13, a measure that would not only erase Nevada’s constitutional ban on gay marriage but also insert language allowing same-sex unions.

Passions flared on both sides, and at one point, Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, publicly disclosed a privately known fact: He is gay. Other senators — most accomplished public speakers and debaters — confessed to rapid heartbeats because of nervousness over the subject.

A few brief scenes from the debate:

■ “This is a vote to let the people vote, for equality.” — Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas.

Perhaps forgotten was the fact that this is but a single step on the long road to repeal: The resolution must be approved by the Assembly this year, stand dormant for 18 months, then be approved by the 2015 Legislature, only then to be placed before voters on the 2016 ballot.

Opponents were put in the always-bad political position of arguing against allowing their constituents to have another crack at the issue. Some argued that the people already had spoken, in 2000 and 2002, when the initiative to insert the anti-gay marriage resolution into the constitution was approved in the first place. But the underlying assumption — that times and minds don’t change — was obviously flawed.

■ “I, for one, am grateful that times change and people change, or else women wouldn’t have the right to vote and I wouldn’t be standing here with this microphone in my hand.” — Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. See what I mean?

■ His faith — specifically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — teaches marriage is between one man and one woman, said Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas.

That’s true. But the remark necessarily assumes a fact not in evidence: that one person’s faith should necessarily form the basis of public policy for those who don’t share those beliefs. Indeed, at least two of Hutchison’s fellow churchmen — state Sens. Mo Denis and Justin Jones, both D-Las Vegas — voted for the resolution, notwithstanding the position of their church.

■ “I would rather lose an election than look my (gay) brother-in-law in the eye and tell him he shouldn’t have the same rights (to marry) as I do, as his sister does.” — Jones.

He was responding to a remark by Richard Ziser — who led the anti-gay marriage initiative campaign — that a vote for the resolution meant political death. Jones showed a stern spine in calling Ziser out by name.

(We also shouldn’t forget that when Ziser put his own name on a ballot — running against U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in 2004 — he lost in the Republican primary to “none of these candidates” in eight out of 17 counties in Nevada. So while constitutional discrimination may be his bag, political prognostication probably isn’t.)

■ “I haven’t evolved at all on this subject. This is where I’ve always been on this.” — state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, March 26.

When the final vote was recorded, it was 12-9, with Kieckhefer the lone Republican joining the Democrats. I was initially surprised, although I shouldn’t have been. Kieckhefer made a point to testify in favor of the resolution at the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee last month, telling members that the current system of civil unions was simply unequal to marriage. “It flies in the face of what we hold most dear, which is justice and equality.”

Justice and equality took a small step forward on a long road on Monday.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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