A group calling itself the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage in Nevada wants voters to constitutionally ban gay marriage in the state.
Accompanied by some 30 supporters, Richard Ziser of Las Vegas formally opened the petition drive with the Secretary of State on Tuesday. They have until June 20 to collect 44,009 signatures from registered voters to put the issue on the 2000 statewide ballot.
He said the coalition was formed because of "the impending threat in the state of Nevada by liberal judges." He said those judges and lawmakers in other states could force Nevada courts and government to recognize same-sex marriage and that proponents have come close to legalizing gay marriage in both Hawaii and Vermont.
"We would have to recognize same-sex marriage," Ziser said adding that "churches might not be able to decide who they marry and where."
Ziser agreed that no one can order a priest to marry someone but added that "it's going that way." He and others in the group, including longtime Christian conservative activists Dan and Janine Hansen, made it clear they don't trust the Nevada Legislature or the courts not to change the existing state law and legalize same-sex marriages. Ziser said putting the prohibition in the state constitution would better protect it.
Nevada law already defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, but Ziser said the amendment is necessary to prevent some other state from recognizing gay marriage and forcing Nevada to do so against its will.
He said the coalition represents a broad spectrum of Nevadans and not just fringe elements.
"We are the average Nevadans in this state. We all believe in the preservation of traditional marriage."
Among those on the list of sponsors are Republican Senators Lawrence Jacobsen of Minden, Maurice Washington of Sparks, Ray Rawson, Ann O'Connell and Bill O'Donnell of Las Vegas, Assembly Democrats Jerry Claborn, John Lee and Tom Collins and Republicans Kathy Von Tobel and Don Gustavson as well as Carson City Mayor Ray Masayko and former Gov. Bob List.
Masayko said Tuesday his decision to support the initiative was a personal decision, not one indicating a position for Carson City.
"I'm entitled to my personal opinions as an individual," Masayko said. "Issues on which I have a stake in making a decision, I'll take a political stance on. This isn't a decision the board of supervisors will be making."
Masayko was vague on his opinion of same-sex marriage but did say in his opinion "marriage is a pretty sanctified action."
He said the issue centered around "marriages versus a domestic partnership agreement."
Ziser said he has a poll that shows 69 percent of Nevadans feel the same way, although he was unable to produce details of that poll. He said the group will use volunteers to collect signatures around the state but expects to collect up to 80,000 by the June deadline.
He denied the petition is an indication of prejudice against any group.
"We respect the beliefs of other people, however, we also understand the difference between respecting other people's beliefs and endorsing same-sex marriage," he said.
Asked whether the proposed amendment was an attempt to prevent gay couples from covering each other with such things as medical or pension benefits, Ziser refused to be specific. He said that was not the focus of the petition which was aimed at reinforcing "natural law" and that companies can already provide "partners" with benefits if they choose.
But Dan Hansen said later that his understanding of the law was that Nevada could not recognize a gay marriage once the couple enters the state.
"In other words, if they were to apply for benefits in Nevada or something," he said.
Hansen said he was most concerned that the petition send the message that Nevada not "promote homosexuality in the schools as a legitimized form of marriage."
Ziser also said he doesn't know exactly how the proposed amendment would stand up to the U.S. Constitution's mandate that states recognize and honor each other's laws. He said a federal court could toss the provision out of Nevada's constitution or state statute but that supporters of the plan believe the amendment would be a stronger statement.