The Nevada state legislature has taken an important step this spring by voting to permit same-sex or opposite-sex couples to enter into domestic partnerships that offer access to most of the rights and responsibilities provided to married couples under state law.  Although this is an important step, it is hardly a radical one.  Five states plus the District of Columbia have already passed similar laws, extending rights and responsibilities through civil unions or domestic partnerships, and five others have passed laws permitting same-sex couples to marry under state law.  This year, it seems like a new state recognizes marriage for same-sex couples just about every week.  The idea of providing legal recognition for loving, committed same-sex couples -- who pay taxes, raise children, and face the same kitchen table concerns as opposite-sex couples -- has become so mainstream that even the Republican Governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, has announced his support for civil unions.

Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada, who has threatened to veto the domestic partnership bill, would do well to listen to his fellow governor from neighboring Utah.  Gov. Gibbons has said, through a spokesperson, that “government has no business in peoples’ medicine cabinets, or in their bedrooms”.  It’s hard to see how the governor determined that giving equal tax treatment or inheritance rights to same-sex couples has anything to do with letting government into anyone’s bedroom. What this legislation is really about is simply making sure that loving, committed same-sex couples, and their families, receive tangible, real-world benefits that make a meaningful difference to peoples’ lives.

That’s why other states have made the decision to provide basic rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples, who, in 29 states, including Nevada, are constitutionally prohibited from marrying.  This is nothing new—civil unions have been around for nine years.  California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C. have enacted laws that provide same-sex couples with access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage under state law through either civil unions or domestic partnerships.

The argument often given for denying same-sex couples basic rights under the law is that this would threaten the institution of marriage.  That argument has been completely debunked – Massachusetts recently marked the fifth anniversary of marriage for same-sex couples and life has gone on as before – but it’s also beside the point here.  Same-sex couples cannot marry in Nevada, and this legislation would not change that.  Given this reality, Gov. Gibbons’ opposition boils down to simple discrimination.  Very simply, he does not believe that same-sex couples and their families are entitled to the same rights as opposite-sex couples.

Denying same-sex couples access to the rights and responsibilities given to married couples leaves them unprotected at the times when they are most vulnerable.  Without these protections, same-sex couples are strangers before the law.  One witness before the Nevada legislature testified that she was removed from a hospital room following the death of her long-time partner, informed that she had no legal right to be there.   Gov. Gibbons has argued, also through a spokesperson, that same-sex couples can enter into private contracts if they want to receive protections.  Apart from the fact that this requires expensive legal fees and forces same-sex couples to take precautions no married opposite-sex couple would ever have to think about (for instance, carrying a stack of legal documents everywhere they go), the reality is that private contracts can never provide all the rights and responsibilities the domestic partnership bill would grant.  Private contracts can’t exempt same-sex couples from property and inheritance taxes, they can’t entitle one partner to receive pension benefits when another dies, they can’t qualify someone for a partner’s health insurance plan at work, they can’t give couples the right to file joint state tax returns.  Similarly, private contracts can’t create responsibilities like the obligation to financially support a partner and children, responsibilities the law would assign to domestic partners, as it does for married couples.

These are the tangible, real-world, state-generated benefits and responsibilities that Gov. Gibbons has threatened to deny same-sex couples with a stroke of his veto pen.  I hope that he will re-consider, or that the legislature will override his veto (they are just two votes away in each chamber).  Again, Gov. Gibbons might consider the conclusion his colleague from Utah reached.  Gov. Huntsman, who opposes marriage for same-sex couples, concluded that providing benefits to same-sex couples who are constitutionally barred from marrying (as they are in both Utah and Nevada) is a matter of basic fairness.  As Gov. Huntsman put it in explaining his support for civil unions, "I believe that we can do a better job in enhancing equal rights for more of our citizens."  That’s exactly what the Nevada bill would do, and Gov. Gibbons will do the right thing for all his constituents if he changes his mind and signs this legislation into law.