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Multi-year marriage equality initiative clears first hurdle in Nevada legislature

Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

Yesterday, the Nevada Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee voted 3-2 to advance a bill that would initiate a multi-year process to repeal the state’s marriage equality ban by 2016.

The bill, SJR13, was originally proposed to repeal the language placed in the Nevada Constitution by Question 2, a 2002 voter-approved constitutional amendment which read, “Only a marriage between a male and female person shall be recognized and given effect in this state.”

During yesterday’s vote, however, the Senate committee advanced an amendment to the legislation that would repeal Question 2’s language and replace it will specific wording affirming both same-sex and opposite-sex couples’ right to marry in Nevada.  According to the AP, the new language would affirm that Nevada “shall recognize marriages and issue marriage licenses, regardless of gender.”

The amended bill will have to be approved by both houses of the Nevada legislature during the current session and again during the 2015 session, and then placed on the 2016 ballot as a constitutional amendment.  If Nevada voters approve the amendment, the marriage equality ban currently in the state’s constitution would be removed and replaced with language inclusive of same-sex couples.

The ACLU and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), which are spearheading the effort behind SJR13, originally planned to push a bill that would only have repealed the constitutional language added by Question 2, Stacey Shinn, a PLAN employee, told EqualityOnTrial via phone from Carson City, where she had been in attendance during the committee vote at the capitol.   According to the original timeline, the 2016 popular vote would only have taken the explicit ban on marriage equality out of the state constitution, while a further piece of legislation would have been required during the 2017 legislative session to bring marriage equality to the state.

But when the two advocacy groups pursued outside support, they were surprised to find that there was a noticeable desire to push for full marriage equality.  “National organizations and funders were well more interested in us if we were actually to repeal and replace the [marriage equality ban] language,” Shinn said.  After the vote yesterday, Shinn told EqualityOnTrial that her phone began to ring with offers from national groups to help on the amendment push.

Nevada has a ‘single-subject rule‘ for ballot initiatives, meaning that questions that go to the voters can only address one issue.  PLAN and the ACLU originally worried that a ballot initiative that both repealed the marriage equality ban and replaced it with pro-equal marriage language would violate the single-subject rule, but the organizations–working with the bill’s supporters on the Senate Operations Committee–determined that a repeal and replace bill could go forward.

SJR13 faced a deadline today by which bills must be passed out of committee in the house in which they were originally filed in order to move forward.  A full Senate vote must occur by April 23.  Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the Nevada Senate, with 11 seats, while Republicans hold 10 seats.  Shinn predicts that at least a few Republicans will cross the aisle to approve the marriage equality amendment: “We’ve been quite bipartisan this session,” she told EqualityOnTrial.  “It’s come to a point where some of these social issues aren’t worth standing on.”

As for the chamber’s Democrats, Shinn expects few, if any, defections: “They’ve decided as a caucus that it’s all or nothing–they’re going together or they’re not.”  This intra-caucus unity would be significant in its own regard, since several Senate Democrats are members of the Mormon faith.

Democrats also hold nearly a two-thirds majority in the Nevada Assembly, with 26 seats to Republicans’ 15.  SJR13 will have to be passed out of an Assembly committee by May 17, and will face a final deadline for Assembly passage on May 24.  The measure will not require any approval from Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who opposes marriage equality.

The PLAN/ACLU amendment bill is not the only push to bring marriage equality to the Silver State: Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group, is currently pursuing a federal lawsuit, Sevcik v. Sandoval, challenging the state’s refusal to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The suit contends that Nevada’s laws, which provide same-sex couples with domestic partnerships but not full marriage rights, violate the equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.  In its complaint, Lambda Legal wrote that Nevada’s laws subject the suit’s plaintiffs “to the inferior and novel status of registered domestic partnerships, and has disrespected the marriages some of them have entered in other jurisdictions, because they are  lesbians and gay men in same-sex relationships.”

A federal district court judge upheld Nevada’s marriage equality ban last November; that decision has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  The case is currently on hold until the Supreme Court issues a ruling in the Proposition 8 case out of California, which also falls under the Ninth Circuit.  The Sevcik case has also been appealed–unsuccessfully, so far–directly to the Supreme Court by the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, which is defending Nevada’s marriage equality ban.

“We are delighted about the progress on a constitutional amendment that would bring marriage equality to Nevada,” Tara Borelli, a Lambda Legal staff attorney and the lead counsel in the Sevcik challenge, told EqualityOnTrial in an email.  If the constitutional amendment were to be approved by Nevada voters in 2016 before a final resolution in the Sevcik case, the lawsuit would be dismissed as moot, since same-sex couples would be able to marry in the state.

PLAN and the ACLU are similarly supportive of the Sevcik suit.  “We want the language out of the Constitution,” Laura Martin, PLAN’s communications director, told EqualityOnTrial. If the Sevcik litigation were to succeed in obtaining a final pro-marriage equality ruling prior to 2016, it remains to be seen if PLAN and the ACLU will continue their push for a repeal and replace bill.  Technically, a court ruling against Question 2 would only render that language unenforceable, while leaving the wording in the Nevada Constitution.  At that point, a repeal and replace strategy would still be required to remove the language from the state constitution, although the effect of such an effort would be largely symbolic.

A poll commissioned by the Retail Association of Nevada in February found that 54 percent of respondents favored repealing the state’s marriage equality ban, with 43 percent opposed.  Support for marriage equality in the state increases on average about two percent a year, Shinn told EqualityOnTrial, so the group feels confident that a 2016 ballot push would have a good chance of success.

1 Comment

  • 1. Equality On Trial »&hellip  |  April 23, 2013 at 8:16 am

    […] bill now heads to the Democrat-controlled Assembly, where it will likely pass given Democrats’ 27-15 seat […]

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