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October 31, 2014

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Legislature 2013:

Gay marriage debate shifts to Assembly, where committee hears fervent testimony

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Marilyn Kirkpatrick

Opponents to changing Nevada’s constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage got the spotlight at a legislative hearing Thursday.

They spoke against Senate Joint Resolution 13, a proposal that would repeal the constitutional prohibition banning same-sex marriage and replace it with a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage.

The resolution passed the state Senate in a 12-9 vote last month with much drama and emotional floor speeches, one of which included Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, declaring publicly for the first time that he is gay.

Responding to criticism that opponents received short shrift during a Senate legislative hearing, an Assembly committee took all opposing testimony first, the opposite of usual practice.

“The chairman and I worked to make sure that the opposition went first this time because the story was that they didn’t get enough time,” said Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas.

But Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Chairman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, imposed a strict two-minute time limit on all testimony, both in support and in opposition. The hearing lasted more than three hours, and the committee via email is accepting testimony until Friday at 5 p.m.

Many of the opponents expressed concern about religious liberties and beliefs as well as opposition defending the current definition of marriage.

“It has been interpreted to mean between a man and woman,” said David Matthews, a man who testified at the hearing. “These other types of interpersonal relationships need to be defined by another name other than the word ‘marriage.’”

Other opponents diverged from the resolution’s topic — definitions of state-sanctioned marriages — and offered broad critiques of gay and lesbian individuals.

One man alleged that changing marriage definitions would result in increases in disease rates.

A representative from the Nevada Live Stock Association addressed sodomy laws.

“To do this and pass this bill to make other people feel equal I think is wrong,” he said.

Another man said that passage of the bill would indicate that “we are devolving.”

The controversial bill is the most popular piece of legislation the Legislature is considering, according to the Legislature’s public comment system.

As of Thursday evening, about 1,200 people indicated support for the bill while about 900 noted opposition to it.

The effect of the resolution would be to remove the definition that “only a marriage between a male and female person shall be recognized and given effect in this state” and replace it with a statement that says Nevada “shall recognize marriages and issue marriage licenses to couples, regardless of gender.”

The resolution also includes a section that says that “religious organizations and clergy have the right to refuse to solemnize a marriage and no person has the right to make any claim against a religious organization or clergy for such a refusal.”

Supporters of the bill spoke about changing views of marriage, equality under the law, and equal access to tax and visitation benefits that married couples currently receive.

“Marriage in this country and in the world is steadily evolving,” said Sen. Pat Spearman, D-Las Vegas, who is openly gay and is also a reverend.

Spearman delivered testimony detailing the history of marriage in Western cultures and addressed recent practices in which interracial marriages were once banned but have since been overturned.

The debate surrounding the resolution has at times been personal and emotional, so much so that legislators told the public they’ve received threats.

“I’ve received a lot of hate mail,” said Assemblyman Andrew Martin, D-Las Vegas, who is openly gay.

The committee hearing also offered legislators a chance to ask about legal ramifications of passing the resolution.

Assemblyman Wes Duncan, R-Las Vegas, said he’s heard concerns that private businesses would have to open their doors to wedding receptions for same-sex couples.

Legislative legal counsel basically said those businesses already have to allow for this. A legislative lawyer told legislators that existing state public accommodation law already bans private businesses from discriminating for reasons of gender identity or expression.

“This constitutional amendment will have no effect on those,” said Kevin Powers, lawyer with the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

Powers also said that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would preclude the state of Nevada from taking away “any rights” with regards to religious freedom.

The resolution now awaits passage in the Assembly.

It needs to pass the Assembly this year and pass the Senate and Assembly during the 2015 legislative session before it is submitted to Nevada voters on the 2016 ballot.

It would essentially reverse a ballot measure that passed in 2000 and again in 2002. This measure put the definition of marriage into the state’s constitution.

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  1. Those who say SJR 13 threatens religious freedom, forces businesses to conduct themselves any differently than they already do, threatens the sanctity of marriage, creates unstable children, is quite simply misinformed, misled, brainwashed, or willfully lying. It's time for Nevada to support marriage equality.

  2. I steadfastly believe that no group's civil rights should be put to a vote, but this is ultimately a step in the right direction.

    I have faith Nevadans will vote to ensure equality is enjoyed by all.