Gay Weddings Come to Las Vegas’s Elvis Chapel

The self-proclaimed ‘marriage capital of the world’ gets on board with same-sex matrimony.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

LAS VEGAS—Elvis hadn’t yet left the building Friday afternoon at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, but it didn’t appear he’d be working overtime following this week’s decision by the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the self-described wedding capital of the world.

Although chapel owner Ron DeCar expresses considerable pride in the change in legal status for gay and lesbian couples attempting to get hitched in Nevada, he didn’t expect a mad rush of nuptials. He should know.

Viva Las Vegas chapel is gay-owned and operated. DeCar and partner of 20 years Jamie Richards have included same-sex commitment ceremonies in the chapel’s marriage-oriented menu since 1999, when they purchased the bustling Las Vegas Boulevard business from maverick casino owner Bob Stupak.

“For us, it’s sort of business as usual,” DeCar says. Back in 1999, “We were the only wedding chapel in Las Vegas doing commitment ceremonies at that time. Other chapels have taken on commitment ceremonies in the last couple years just for the monetary issue. For us, I would say 10 to 20 percent of our business is that naturally.”

DeCar and Richards have owned the gaychapeloflasvegas.com website for many years and performed commitment ceremonies after Nevada voters in 2002 voted to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and woman.

The appeals court ruling was greeted with cheers from many corners of Nevada and the legal community generally. “We are so pleased that wedding bells will finally ring for all same-sex couples in Nevada,” Lambda Legal attorney Tara Borelli says. She helped argue the case in front of the 9th Circuit.

While the victory will surely mean increased business in what local marriage business insiders call “matrimonial tourism,” DeCar laughs at the thought of the sudden appearance of a long line of gays and lesbians who might have been waiting for decades for a chance to experience a Vegas wedding. Just to make sure, he strolled into the Clark County Marriage License Bureau to see for himself.

“I went in, and I didn’t see any same-sex couples in the lobby,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s going to be this massive wave of marriages license applications. The reason for that is, my partner and I have been together for 20 years come December. We could easily go down and get the marriage license today, but there’s not that urgency for us. Now that we can do it, we’re going to plan it like everybody else.”

With its decades-long history of offering quickie hitches and divorces, marriage has long been a big business in Nevada. With more than $500 million generated annually, maybe they should call it “matri-money.”

On Third Street downtown, the folks at Vegas Weddings planned for a rush this week by putting four ministers on stand-by status for the company’s three local chapels that already perform 200 ceremonies a week. Unlike a few other chapels, Vegas Weddings didn’t enter the same-sex commitment business.

But finally seeing the court rule in favor of fairness comes as a relief to minister Heidi Walls.

“Love is our business—and making couples happy,” Walls says. “To witness that change, especially because it is such a change in Nevada, we’re watching history being made. And we definitely want to be part of it.”

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The first licenses were issued just after 5 p.m. Thursday following the last gasp of opposition. For those keeping score, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it went to Antioco Carillo and Theo Small.

Back at Viva Las Vegas chapel, DeCar and Richards joke about their own marital status now that it’s legal. As they stood together to pose for a photo in front of the chapel’s electronic sign, which of course advertises the legality of same-sex union, passing tourists cheer for them.

“From Day One we were doing commitment ceremonies,” Richards says. “I worked at the MGM (Grand) years ago when you literally went to board meetings and stuff, and nobody could know you were gay. And now all the hotels embrace the gay population, and they embrace the gay dollar. It’s got to help the economy.”

DeCar only wonders what took Nevada so long.

“As the ‘marriage capital of the world,’” he says, “we should have been one of the first states.”