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Nevada protects gay marriage in constitution, exempts clergy from ceremonies

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RENO, Nev. (BP) – Nevada has amended its constitution to protect same-sex marriage and concurrently exempted clergy and pastors from litigation if they refuse to perform such unions.

Previously one of 30 states with constitutions limiting marriage to one man and one woman, Nevada became the first to remove the provision when a ballot question was approved Nov. 3 by 62.5 percent of voters.

Nevada Baptist Convention Executive Director Kevin White lamented the state protection for gay marriage and questioned whether the protection for pastors refusing to perform such marriages would survive potential court challenges.

“We of course strongly support the biblical description of marriage (between one man and one woman),” White said. “We did appreciate the protections that they were putting for pastors who would refuse to conduct same-sex marriage; but at the same time, we’re deeply concerned that these protections could easily be removed and place biblical pastors in legal battles that could destroy churches financially.”

The amendment institutionalizes in the state’s constitution a right to same-sex marriage regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, a 5-4 ruling in 2015 that states must recognize marriages between people of the same sex. Nevada legislators approved the constitutional amendment in two successive legislative sessions, in 2017 and 2019, as a required condition under state law for it to be placed on the ballot.

White said he believes many Christians may have supported the state measure under the erroneous belief that it was inconsequential, given the federal ruling.

“This constitutional change is going to be extremely difficult for us to change back,” White said. “And it just saddens my heart greatly as we move so far away from God and His designed plan for our lives.”

Regarding the pastoral and clergy exemption, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on a case challenging the First Amendment rights of pastors to refuse to perform same-sex unions. But writing the majority opinion in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, which reversed a lower court decision against a Christian baker who refused to design a cake for a same-sex union, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy alluded to pastoral rights.

“When it comes to weddings, it can be assumed that a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform the ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion,” Kennedy wrote. “This refusal would be well understood in our constitutional order as an exercise of religion, an exercise that gay persons could recognize and accept without serious diminishment to their own dignity and worth.”

Nevada pastors are still concerned, White said.

“When I spoke to pastors about this, there concern is, ‘OK, when will these protections be removed?'” White said. “It’s a slippery slope … that you go down a path that will lead to another path, that will lead to another path, until we’re even further away from where we need to be.”

With the change, Nevada is one of seven states and the District of Columbia that provide some protection for pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, according to ballotpedia.com.

States retaining constitutional bans on gay marriage, though unenforceable because of the Obergefell decision, are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to ballotpedia.com. Maine, Maryland and Washington also have measures protecting gay marriage.