Vegas, Marriage Capital of the World, left at the altar on gay weddings

Because of a state constitutional ban, Nevada’s wedding industry loses untold millions while other states make it legal

Same-sex couples looking to get married haven’t felt so welcome in Las Vegas.

Bill James and Danny Murray waited. As long ago as 2005, they considered tying the knot in Massachusetts. Then, as other states began to recognize same-sex marriage, they thought about doing it in New York, then in Washington, D.C., maybe even in Iowa where Murray’s sister lives.

But the Texas couple really wanted to wed in Las Vegas, where they met at a technology convention in 1988 and have returned almost yearly for their anniversary. They envisioned something over-the-top, perhaps with an Elvis impersonator or Cirque du Soleil performers.

Even as a parade of states and other nations legalized gay marriage via popular vote, legislative action or judicial fiat, the self-proclaimed Marriage Capital of the World remains unavailable to same-sex couples, thanks to a 2002 amendment to its state constitution limiting marriage to a union between heterosexuals.

As loyal as they had been to their Vegas nuptials dream, James and Murray decided they could no longer delay when the IRS decided in August to allow legally wed same-sex couples to file taxes jointly as spouses regardless of where they live. In November, they got hitched in Palm Springs, Calif.

“It’s crazy that Vegas doesn’t allow it, but at some point, you give up and live your life,” said Murray, 60. “I mean, they just started allowing it in Utah. But Nevada remains stuck in the past.”

Stuck may, indeed, be the operative word. The state’s legislature began repealing its constitutional ban this year, but it’s a convoluted, multiyear process that can’t come to fruition until 2017 at the earliest. A pending federal lawsuit may undo the ban, too — as a similar lawsuit did in late December in neighboring Utah — but the timetable is unclear. Unlike in Utah, the federal judge in Nevada upheld the ban’s constitutionality in November 2012, and litigants are now waiting for word as to when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will take up the matter.

Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is now recognized by 18 states, plus Washington, D.C., leaving a tourism-dependent state known for its live-and-let-live ethos — one once famed for its quickie weddings and divorces and never a place associated with the sanctity of traditional marriages — left at what might have been a very lucrative altar.

“Sure it’s frustrating,” said Ron DeCar, co-owner of the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. “With everything else Nevada has to offer, especially in Las Vegas, it’s baffling why it hasn’t happened here. If it doesn’t happen soon, by the time we actually get it, there’ll probably be 10 more states ahead of us. We’ll be one of the last ones, which is ridiculous.”

All dressed up...

It also damages a brand that has taken a beating in recent years. Once-booming Nevada was the epitome of the Great Recession, besieged by the steepest decline in home values and a brutal drop in tourism and business-convention revenue. Even as the housing crisis has eased, the state has consistently had one of the nation's highest unemployment rates — 9 percent as of December.

The wedding industry has been particularly devastated, chapel-industry lobbyist George Flint said.

Last year there were just 8,000 marriage licenses issued in Washoe County, which includes Reno, marking the county’s lowest number since 1937, he said. Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, remains the world’s marriage-license leader, with more than 80,000 issued in 2013. But that, too, is down from the 2004 heyday, when the county issued more than 128,000 licenses.

Flint testified at the Nevada legislature in 2013 that legalizing same-sex marriage could mean as much as $90 million in new business for an industry weakened both by recession and a liberalization of marriage laws across the nation that makes it less necessary to slip off to Vegas or Reno. Economist Lee Badgett of the Williams Institute at UCLA, a think tank focused on gay issues, put the figure closer to $52 million over the first three years.

Regardless of the exact amount, Flint and Badgett agree that the windfall diminishes as the years pass and other states make gay marriage legal. Especially damaging to Nevada’s prospects are California, where same-sex marriages resumed last summer after a four-year pause, and Hawaii, where gays began getting wed on Dec. 2.

“If it happens in Nevada next year, the revenue would be one number, but if it’s five years from now, it’ll be a much smaller number,” Badgett said. “There are hundreds of thousands of couples that are likely to get married in the next five years. If Nevada had been in on the front end, they’d be able to make a clear case for that business. Now there’s someone new every week.”

Tourism suffering?

Vegas’ struggles on this score threaten to undermine years of aggressive, expensive marketing campaigns focused on drawing gay and lesbian travelers to the destination. The major resorts routinely advertise in LGBT media, have special travel packages available on gay websites and host parties and nightclub events. The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT lobby, blessed three of the largest casino-resort operators — Wynn Resorts, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International — with 100 percent ratings on its Corporate Equality Index, a measure of gay-friendly employee and customer policies.

The hospitality industry opposed the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage when it went before voters in 2002 (the measure passed with 67 percent of the vote), and the industry supported the 2013 initial step toward repealing the ban. An October 2013 poll conducted for the Retail Association of Nevada found 57 percent of voters now support legal same-sex marriage.

Even so, however, LGBT travelers will find the sales pitch for Vegas as a tourist destination less and less persuasive the longer the state doesn’t allow same-sex marriage, said Bob Witeck, a Washington-based marketing specialist who advises American Airlines and Marriott on appealing to LGBT customers.

“It’s going to be a challenge because everybody knows what states allow it and what states don’t,” he said. “The question everybody’s going to ask over and over is, ‘Will I find this jurisdiction welcoming to me?’”

The rapid increase in the number of states permitting gay marriages has crushed demand for commitment ceremonies, a legally meaningless alternative that many of the resorts and chapels offer. DeCar and Flint, who has owned the Chapel of the Bells in Reno for 51 years, said such bookings have plummeted since California resumed same-sex marriages after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in June.

“We don’t get the same amount of committal ceremonies because the real thing is so available,” Flint said. “It collapsed overnight.”

Some travel agents have tried with little success to take advantage of legal marriage in neighboring states. Terry Wilsey of Answer on Travel said he gave up on an idea to drive same-sex couples from Las Vegas to the California state line 40 miles away for ceremonies on the California side of a golf course that straddles the state line. Aside from the fact that transportation costs were prohibitive, Wilsey discovered that the closest place to obtain a California marriage license was in Barstow, another 115 miles away.

State Sen. David Parks, Nevada’s first openly gay elected official and someone who has made a career of pushing for pro-gay laws, said an important business opportunity may already have passed.

“The train left the station, and we’re still standing on the platform,” Parks said. “I don’t see that we’re likely to recover that.”

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