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Federal lawsuit seeks marriage equality in Nevada, sets up future actions

Today, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund took what one of its lawyers calls "a strategic step" in the national effort to advance marriage equality by filing a federal lawsuit in Nevada seeking equal marriage rights for eight same-sex couples in the state.

The lawsuit, Sevcik v. Sandoval, marks the first time that Lambda Legal has sought equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in federal court, although a staff attorney with the group, Tara Borelli, notes that another case filed by Lambda Legal in state court in New Jersey includes federal claims as well.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, the lead plaintiffs in the new lawsuit -- Beverly Sevcik, 73, and Mary Baranovich, 76, of Carson City, Nevada -- have been together for more than 40 years. As the complaint notes, "When Beverly and Mary committed their lives to each other on October 2, 1971 and bought rings to signify their relationship, they were careful not to purchase matching rings for fear of having their relationship discovered."

The couple, nonetheless, went on to raise three children and have four grandchildren, despite the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2000 and 2002 limiting marriage in the state's constitution to "a male and a female person." Same-sex couples have been able to receive many of the same benefits and privileges of marriage but not the status itself, however, since the legislature passed comprehensive domestic partnership benefits over the veto of then-Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) in 2009.

Lambda Legal's federal lawsuit against Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) was filed electronically in Nevada overnight today, and it stands as a sign of the significant ground movement on marriage equality in the country in recent years.

Less than three years ago, when word came on May 27, 2009, that a brand new organization -- the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) -- had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn California's Proposition 8, the response from the legal groups was not at all positive. The day the AFER lawsuit -- then Perry v. Schwarzenegger and now Perry v. Brown -- was announced, Lambda Legal and several other legal, political and educational LGBT organizations released a statement warning that "that ill-timed lawsuits could set the fight for marriage back." Specifically questioning lawsuits "based on the federal Constitution," the groups were concerned that "without more groundwork, the U.S. Supreme Court likely is not yet ready to rule that same-sex couples cannot be barred from marriage."

With today's filing, Lambda appears to have acknowledged that Perry has helped lay that groundwork. By filing the case in Nevada, any appeal of a trial-court decision would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit -- which agreed in February with the trial-court judge in Perry that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

At the same time, Borelli makes clear that Lambda sees this as another -- and not the final -- step in seeking marriage equality through the courts.

"This lawsuit seeks the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in the state of Nevada and is tailored to be a responsible building block for future marriage equality work," she tells Metro Weekly from Las Vegas on the eve of the filing. "We've always believed that it's important to take strategic steps that build on each other, and that's exactly what this case is designed to do."

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