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Nevada becomes first state to protect same-sex marriage in its constitution

Cynthia Sanchez takes photos as her sister Jennifer Escobar and Luz Sigman kiss during their wedding in Las Vegas.
Cynthia Sanchez takes video and pictures as her sister Jennifer Escobar, right, and Luz Sigman kiss during their wedding ceremony in Las Vegas in May.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Las Vegas has been known for decades as the place for exuberant nuptials blessed by the swirl of Elvis’ white capes. But for years, legal marriages were barred for same-sex couples.

Now, the state that’s home to the “wedding capital of the world” is also the first in the country to officially protect same-sex marriage in its constitution.

“It’s literally righting a wrong,” said Karen Vibe, a businesswoman who moved to Reno shortly before voters passed a ban on same-sex marriage in 2002.

That vote left her feeling betrayed by her new neighbors, and she couldn’t marry her then-partner until courts ruled against the measure more than a decade later.

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Watching people vote in this election to repeal the defunct ban gave her a deeper sense of security in her home and family. Nevada voters were asked whether they supported a constitutional amendment recognizing marriage “as between couples regardless of gender.”

Passage of that amendment also helped ease the anxiety that Vibe and others in the LGBTQ community are feeling about the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court after two justices took the unusual step of criticizing the high court’s 2015 decision guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide.

Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages around the U.S., more than half a million households are made up of married same-sex couples.

“There’s now a looming question on many issues, including the equality and freedom of LGBT people,” said Jenny Pizer, law and policy director at rights group Lambda Legal. “The question and the anxiety, the uncertainty looms in a way that is fresh.”

It’s considered unlikely that the high court would overturn such a recent precedent that has quickly become deeply enmeshed in U.S. society, but the fact that the Nevada amendment passed with more than 60% of the vote is heartening, said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“The incredibly high margin really shows how much our country has changed on the issue,” Minter said.

Before it could get on the ballot, the question had to clear the state Legislature twice, in 2017 and 2019. Supporters campaigned across Nevada, arguing that even if the ban was defunct, it still left a scar on the state constitution. The former lawmaker who sponsored the resolution, Nelson Araujo, said the November vote was a culmination of four years of work.

“To see my state support me and so many of my friends and my community is an incredible feeling,” he said.

How crucial was the 2020 election to the LGBTQ community? It felt the same terror about its future that reproductive rights advocates felt another four years of Trump would mean for Roe vs. Wade.

Nevada has long been a swing state, although it’s been trending more Democratic in recent years. Still, the same-sex marriage vote crossed party lines, garnering a larger percentage of the vote than President-elect Joe Biden and passing in some counties carried by President Trump.

About 30 states still have same-sex marriage bans on the books, although those have been invalidated by court rulings. Virginia lawmakers repealed their ban this year, but similar efforts have failed in Indiana and Florida.

In Nevada, the change won’t require clergy members to perform same-sex marriages if they don’t want to. Still, some opposition remains. Kevin White, executive director of the state’s Baptist Convention, told the Baptist Press that he appreciates the exemption, but “it just saddens my heart greatly as we move so far away from God and His designed plan for our lives.”

Nevada has one of the nation’s highest proportions of LGBTQ people, just behind Washington, D.C., and Oregon, according to a 2016 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA.

The European Union has unveiled its first strategy for improving the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, non-binary, intersex and queer people.

The share of marriage licenses given to same-sex couples in the Las Vegas area has been on the rise since 2014, when the ban was first struck down in federal court. That year, they made up 4.6% of the total. This year, even with a sharp decline overall in marriage licenses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, same-sex couples made up more than 6% of the pairs who tied the knot in Clark County.

People have streamed into Nevada from all over the world to get hitched since at least the 1930s, pushing the marriage rate to the highest in the country and creating a $2 billion-a-year industry, Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya said. About $100 million of that economic activity is tied to same-sex weddings.

Goya makes an effort to chat with some of the tens of thousands of people who come to her office for marriage licenses every year.

“Something I hear consistently from same-sex couples is they feel comfortable here,” she said. “They feel like they can walk down the street holding hands and nobody will give them a hard time, and they just feel like it’s a very welcoming community.”


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