By LINDSAY WHITEHURST and SAM METZ, Associated Press
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — 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 wife until courts ruled against the measure more than a decade later.
Watching people vote this election to repeal the defunct ban gave her a deeper sense of security in her home and family.
It also helped ease the anxiety she and others in the LGBTQ community are feeling about the new conservative majority on the U.S. 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.
“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 LGBT 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.
Nevada has long been a swing state with an electorate ranging from cowboys to casino workers, though 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 Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and passing in some counties carried by President Donald Trump.
About 30 states still have same-sex marriage bans on the books, though they have been blocked by the courts. 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 the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.
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 coronavirus pandemic, same-sex couples made up more than 6% of people 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.”
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.