Supreme Court shuffle ups gay marriage ballot measure stakes in Nevada

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John Locher / Associated Press file

In this Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, file photo, Logan Seven raises an equality flag on the front of the Chapelle de l’amore wedding chapel, in Las Vegas.

Wed, Oct 7, 2020 (12:47 p.m.)

CARSON CITY — Proponents of a state ballot initiative that proposes removing a defunct ban on same-sex marriage from Nevada's constitution are saying the uncertainty that's followed the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has injected new urgency — and anxiety — into their campaign.

When same-sex marriage advocates began the process of qualifying the ballot initiative, their primary challenge wasn't swaying opponents to their side, it was convincing voters that an issue settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 merited attention, Battleborn Progress Deputy Director Maria-Theresa Parraga said.

That's no longer the case.

“It’s completely changed the narrative. For a lot of folks they don’t need any extra explanation,” Parraga said. “A lot of people didn’t see the importance, but now, here we are and gay marriage is literally being threatened.”

In Nevada — a state long known for quickie marriages — voters approved a ballot initiative in 2002 to ban same-sex marriage. Although same-sex marriage has since been made legal, it's one of 30 states with constitutions that contain inactive bans on the practice.

On Nov. 3, the state's voters will be the first in the United States to decide whether to remove a constitutional ban.

Supporters of the initiative, which will appear on the ballot as Question 2, previously talked about the ban's symbolic meaning and the importance of illustrating Nevada's embrace of inclusivity. Now, they discuss worst-case scenarios with voters and the need to safeguard same-sex marriage at the state level.

Ginsburg's death jolted them to attention and Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito's Monday suggestion that the court revisit parts of the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling alarmed some voters, advocates say.

Opponents to some extent agree. Janine Hansen, the president of Nevada Families for Freedom, said the vacant seat on the high court adds an interesting dimension to Question 2, but not one that changes her stance. "Once we vote as a people to reject God’s law we are open to his wrath,” Hansen wrote in her September newsletter.

She worries that one provision that allows religious organizations and clergy members to refuse to perform same-sex marriages doesn't include other people and groups who disapprove on religious grounds.

“There might be businesses that don’t want to make a same-sex wedding cake or someone that doesn’t want to take pictures of a same-sex marriage or some other thing that might violate their personally-held beliefs,” she said. “How far the discrimination will go? I do not know.”

Although she hopes otherwise, Hansen isn’t optimistic that adding conservatives to the Supreme Court will lead to a reversal of its same-sex marriage decision.

Hansen was part of the successful 2002 effort to add the ban to Nevada's constitution and argues the will of the people reflected in that vote should be respected. She acknowledged the final Question 2 tally may show the Nevada electorate now opposes the ban but said, if so, it'll only be because the Supreme Court transformed the debate with its 2015 ruling, making it harder for her side to argue their points.

In order to qualify ballot questions, Nevada lawmakers must pass resolutions in two consecutive legislative sessions. State Sen. David Parks, a Las Vegas Democrat who co-sponsored the prerequisite resolutions in 2017 and 2019, never agreed that removing the ban was symbolic.

“I’ve always countered by telling them that if something were to change in the Supreme Court, then we would be back to what’s currently in the Constitution,” Parks said.

Compared to when he started working on LGBTQ issues in 1999, the public discourse has evolved to such an extent that the vast majority of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers supported putting the question on the ballot in the 2019 legislative session, Parks said. If Question 2 passes, it'll relieve the worries he feels when he reviews history and instances in which federal courts made up of appointed justices often haven't followed the same trajectory as public opinion, Parks said.

“We’ve seen cases in the Supreme Court change over time. It’s like a pendulum. They end up swinging one way and back the other way,” he said.

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