Marriage equality in Nevada is becoming more and more likely after the state Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 13 on April 22 with a vote of 12-9.
SJR13 began as a measure to amend the Nevada Constitution to remove 18 words. The words in question defined marriage as between a man and a woman. They were added as an amendment to Nevada’s constitution in 2002 after Nevadans voted 67 percent to 33 percent in favor of the Protection of Marriage Act.
SJR13 was introduced in mid-March and initially had support from both parties. An amendment to the bill changed the language from a “repeal of the limitation on the recognition of marriage.” The new wording would “require the recognition of all marriages, regardless of gender.” A second amendment added a section allowing religious organizations and clergy to turn away same-sex couples but ensures that all marriages would be treated equally under the law. The first of the amendments caused the bill to lose some of its support from Republican Senate members.
Senator James Settelmeyer was among the Republican legislators who originally expressed support but withdrew it after the bill was amended, stating that he only supported striking the limitation on marriage from the constitution.
However, the bill did pass in committee with a vote of 3-2 and went to the Senate floor where it passed with a vote of 12-9. 11 of those votes came from Democrats; the twelfth was from Republican Senator Ben Kieckhefer. Senator Kelvin Atkinson made national news when he came out as gay during the floor session prior to the vote.
“I’m black. I’m gay,” Atkinson said during the session. “I know this is the first time many of you have heard me say that I am a black, gay male.”
Many news networks reported on Atkinson’s “coming out” speech and focused on the significance of its timing and what it means for Nevada’s stance on same-sex marriage. Atkinson’s willingness to speak publicly about his sexuality could influence other politicians to do the same, which could potentially sway public opinion on same-sex marriage.
Although Atkinson was thrust into the spotlight after his speech made national headlines, he is not the only openly gay state legislator in Nevada. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, there are five — Senators Pat Spearman, David Parks, and Atkinson as well as Assemblymen Andrew Martin and James Healey. All of them are Democrats from Southern Nevada, and if their ability to be elected signifies anything, perhaps it is indicative of a turn in Nevada’s stance on same-sex marriage.
If the outpouring of support for SJR13 during the first discussion of the bill characterizes the attitude of Nevadans toward same-sex marriage, then it seems the measure is likely to pass. Thirty-seven people came forward to testify at the hearing on SJR13, some members of the LGBT community themselves, others supporting their family members and friends.
Friends and family members of people in the gay community proved to be essential to gaining the vote of at least one senator. Senator Justin Jones spoke of his brother-in-law when explaining why he is in favor of SJR13 despite the votes it could cost him in the next election.
“I would rather lose an election than look my brother-in-law in the eye every Sunday and tell him he doesn’t have the same rights as I do,” Jones said.
Senator Ben Kieckhefer, the only Republican who voted in favor of the bill declined to explain his vote, saying it was personal and that he preferred to let the vote speak for itself.
The next step for SJR13 is to go to the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections and then, if passed, to the Assembly floor for another vote. However, the bill still has a long way to go. If passed in this session, the bill will have to go through another round of votes in the legislature in 2015. If it survives round two, it will go to the Nevada voters in 2016.
Senator Pat Spearman is optimistic that Nevadans’ views on same-sex marriage changed and said that this is an issue of equality.
“The American people have come a long way,” Spearman said. “People have become enlightened. Being gay is no longer an issue. It always takes time.”