Tuesday, March 27, 2001 | 11:09 a.m.
Legislation conceived to allow unmarried couples the right to visit each other in the hospital may provide much more for Nevada's gay community.
As written, Assembly Bill 496, introduced by Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, last week, includes inheritances, sick-leave benefits, medical decisions and funeral arrangements. It would allow employers to extend insurance to unmarried partners.
It also would allow couples -- gay or straight -- to formalize those rights by entering into a "reciprocal beneficiary relationship." This would be a legal agreement between two unmarried adults, entered into by filling out forms provided by the attorney general's office.
"This is just a backdoor method" of creating a civil-union law, said Richard Ziser, who successfully led a movement last year to ban gay marriages in Nevada. Ziser is in Carson City today, trying to get the bill killed in committee.
Ziser, Coalition for the Protection of Marriage chairman, said he supported the early idea of AB496 when it was limited to guaranteeing hospital visitation rights for gay couples.
But the bill now would permit partners to inherit each other's money upon a death, make medical decisions if the partner could not and enjoy legal protection for other rights. Businesses and public agencies would have the option of extending insurance coverage to an employee's partner.
The bill also allows for formal dissolution of such relationships.
A hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee has not been scheduled.
Parks, who is gay, said he wanted the bill to "provide two unmarried persons the opportunity to establish a consensual relationship so that they may receive benefits and protections and be subject to the responsibilities granted to spouses in ... specific areas."
Ziser said the bill would accomplish much of what he fought against last year.
"There are a lot of provisions that we are going to be opposing," he said.
As head of the coalition, Ziser led a yearlong campaign to persuade voters to change the Nevada Constitution. Seventy percent of the voters favored Question 2 that states that a marriage is a legal union between a man and a woman.
The ballot initiative would not become part of the constitution unless it is approved a second time, in 2002.
The Vermont Legislature last year passed its Civil Union Act, which allows gay couples all the rights and responsibilities that laws grant heterosexual couples. Ziser launched his ballot initiative to ensure a similar act could not pass in Nevada.
But supporters of Parks' bill say such an act is exactly what the state needs.
"This would really have a positive impact on real people's lives," said Liz Moore, Southern Nevada coordinator of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Ron Lawrence, a Las Vegas marriage and family therapist who has many gay clients, says the bill is a step in the right direction.
"This is certainly a way to legitimize that connection" between couples, he said. "I think it's wonderful."
Parks isn't sure how much support the bill will generate among legislators.
"It's too early to say," he said.
Sen. Mark James, R-Las Vegas, said in an e-mail that he would support the bill. Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, said she "would lean toward supporting it."
"It's a good thing ... because it's a more compassionate approach," she said.