Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2000 | 11:35 a.m.
Hours after an initiative petition drive was launched Tuesday to make gay marriage unconstitutional in Nevada, debate on the issue became loud and passionate.
A crowd of about 200 people, including ministers and other local church representatives, gathered in front of the Clark County Courthouse Tuesday to cheer the introduction of the petition.
Richard Ziser, chairman of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage in Nevada, who earlier in the day filed the petition in Carson City, drew applause from the friendly crowd when he said the traditional concept of marriage "needs to be protected."
Later, during a taping of Tuesday's broadcast of "POV Vegas," the Las Vegas Sun's daily news talk show on Cox Cable channels 1 and 39, he faced opposition from a representative of the gay community, a former state senator and an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
Afterward, on a KXNT 840-AM radio talk show hosted by Alan Stock, a vocal supporter of the constitutional ban, Ziser was back on friendlier turf. However, he faced opposition from fellow guest Lee Plotkin, political columnist for the Las Vegas Bugle gay publication.
Plotkin noted that the arguments against gay marriages are strikingly similar to those that kept interracial heterosexual marriages illegal in America until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional.
The petition needs the verified signatures of 44,009 registered voters by June 20 to get on the November ballot. It must include 10 percent of the registered voters in 13 of the state's 17 counties. If the measure goes to the voters and passes, it must be approved a second time in 2002 by the voters to become a part of the Constitution.
Nevada law already requires a marriage be between a man and a woman, but Ziser wants to include the ban in the state Constitution. This, he and his supporters say, is needed so that Nevada won't have to recognize same-sex marriages if other states legalize them.
The concern is that without constitutional protection, Nevada, under the Full Faith and Credit Act -- a law that requires states to recognize each other's laws -- would have to recognize gay marriages that occurred in states that approve such unions.
During his speech before the courthouse crowd, Ziser said the issue is preserving the traditional marriage of men and women.
"Traditional marriages are the basic building block of society," he said.
"We do not need a judge in other states telling us what our laws should be," Ziser said. A recent court ruling in Vermont recognized a gay marriage.
Ziser said measures similar to the one being proposed have been passed in 31 states.
On "POV Vegas," Ziser had to defend his position before three other guests who did not agree with his point of view -- Vincent Frey, director of the Las Vegas Gay and Lesbian Community Center, former State Senator and current high school teacher Lori Lipman Brown and ACLU attorney Gary Peck.
"I feel this is an attack on people in long, committed relationships," Frey said."I don't think the government should define what marriage is."
"Society has the right to protect its interests," Ziser responded, noting that his group views homosexual relationships as "not proper."
Outside the studio, Frey noted that despite the current law, some Nevada churches and synagogues perform "holy unions" for people of the same sex.
Brown, a heterosexual married woman who in 1993 as a state lawmaker got the longstanding law against sodomy off the books, said under such a constitutional change, a gay married couple from a state that recognized same-sex marriages could face harsh consequences traveling through Nevada.
For example, she said, a married gay couple from another state could get into an auto accident in Las Vegas and one of them who escaped injury would not be allowed to visit his dying partner, let alone make decisions like removal of life support systems -- a right that heterosexual married couples have.
Peck said he feels the initiative is an act of a majority taking action against a minority based on religious beliefs and called the proposed constitutional change "a divisive issue intruding into people's lives."
"We believe ... it is inescapably obvious (that the measure) is part of a broader agenda," Peck said. "To deny it is to deny reality."
After the "POV Vegas" taping, Peck said he thinks that if the initiative goes to the voters, it would not pass because of the fiercely independent nature of Nevadans.
"Nevadans do not tolerate intolerance," he said. "This is about leaving people alone. This is about treating people fairly."
If gay marriages were recognized in Nevada, Ziser said in Carson City, churches may not be able to decide who they marry and schools might be required to teach that same-sex marriages are legal.
The constitutional amendment, he said, would not affect companies that provide insurance benefits for same-sex partnerships.