Published Friday, April 10, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.
Updated Saturday, April 11, 2009 | 1:25 p.m.
Local experts say Nevada probably won't be legalizing same-sex marriage any time soon, following recent decisions affirming gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont, but the emerging trend could help turn public sentiment here.
This issue sparks the passions of those opposed to gay marriage on the basis of conservative religious values and gay marriage supporters, who seek validation and equality.
Any change would take years, and both sides would be campaigning hard to win voters.
Although Nevada's constitution prohibits gay marriage, legislation is in the works that would give same-sex couples who enter domestic partnerships the same benefits as married couples. It cleared a key hurdle Wednesday, passing a Senate committee by a 4-2 vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, must now clear the Senate floor. Parks is the only openly gay member of the legislature.
Senate Bill 283 wouldn't grant marriage rights, but it would give broader rights to domestic partners who register with the state.
For gay marriage to be an option in Nevada, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, passed by voters in 2002, would have to be invalidated and then marriage redefined, said Sylvia Lazos, a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. The change would have to be approved by voters twice, which would take at least four years.
Outside of that, a federal court would have to declare gay marriage as a constitutional right.
Lazos, the Justice Myron Leavitt professor of constitutional law, said both options are highly unlikely.
"First, I don't think we have the local political will at this time," she said. "And second, federal courts are probably going to stay away from a controversial issue (such as this) until it's more sorted out at a state court level. It might be another 20-25 years from now (to see a change.)"
But, many didn't anticipate Iowa's decision on Friday. Iowa became the first state in the Midwest to approve same-sex marriage. The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously declared a 1998 law limiting marriage to a man and a woman as unconstitutional.
"I do think clearly there is a trend that state courts are evaluating (marriage) constitutional principles for fairness and equality and finding (they are) clearly discriminatory," said Gary Peck, ACLU of Nevada executive director. "The protection of marriage act that we (Nevada) passed, that inscribes in our constitution discrimination against a particular group of people, was terribly misguided."
Not according to the conservative advocacy group Nevada Concerned Citizens, which spearheaded the marriage amendment.
"Once people get a chance to vote, they always vote for marriage to be between a man and a woman," said organization Chairman Richard Ziser. "So the homosexual community tries to bring it up through the courts."
Not only the courts. Now legislatures are getting involved.
On Tuesday, Vermont became the first state to allow same-sex marriage through legislative action rather than a court ruling.
Massachusetts and Connecticut also allow same-sex marriage. Other Northeast states — New Jersey and New Hampshire — recognize civil unions.
Ziser said it's unlikely that Nevada voters will overturn the constitutional amendment. He is advising those fighting the gay marriage ruling in Iowa and said a challenge to the Iowa decision could bring this issue all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Iowa first banned gay marriage by statute — which the court overturned. This is how activist judges make decisions against the will of the voters, Ziser said.
But often going against the majority view is the right thing to do, gay marriage proponents say.
Marriage protection acts were passed in many states — including California and Iowa — but that doesn't mean it's OK to deny people a right enjoyed by others, Peck said. And the courts are starting to respond by ruling those acts discriminatory.
In the case of California, its supreme court overturned a same-sex marriage ban last year. For about six months, gay couples married in California.
Charlotte Morgan and her partner, Julie Liebo, both of Las Vegas, were one of those couples.
"Even though I am married like many people who get married every day in California, my rights are not valid in Nevada, where I live," said Morgan, who is naturopathic doctor.
In November, California voters passed Proposition 8, again limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. "That already is not equal to anyone who happens to wander in to get a marriage license in California today. Their (heterosexual couples) license would be valid no matter where they live. I am waiting for the day it will be recognized in all states."
Peck said that throughout history the majority often oppress others, such as African Americans or women. But it's often the courts that decide what's not acceptable, even before most public sentiment turns in that direction.
He doesn't believe those who voted for Nevada's marriage act were homophobic or had ill intentions, he just thinks they were wrong.
"And at the end of the day, we believe people with good hearts and good intentions will come to that realization, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not five years from now, but I hope they do," Peck said.
Lazos was attending a conference in Iowa City, Iowa, when the news broke. She saw the demonstrations in support of the decision. The law professor read the decision on the plane back to Nevada.
"The Iowa court got it right," Lazos said, referring to how the court decided based on its decision that homosexuals deserve the same intimate, personal rights as heterosexuals.
But she doesn't see public opinion changing in Nevada. In 2000, Nevada's constitutional ban passed with a margin of 70 percent. In 2002, it was 68 percent.
But historically Nevada is a rebellious state, said Dr. Sondra Cosgrove, Nevada history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. The people do not scorn profit, even at the sake of moral standing. And gay marriages have proven lucrative in Northeastern states.
"I think it's more likely right now in an economic downturn, because in Nevada we look at other states to see what they're not doing and then, to make money, we turn around and do it," she said. "Economics sometimes drives issues like that."