Las Vegas — Legalized prostitution, one of Nevada's last vestiges of the frontier West, is triggering a six-shooter of controversy. Licensed brothels in the state have long drawn the ire of religious and conservative groups. Now they are being questioned by some prominent political lobbyists and business leaders, as well.
The latest concern isn't morality, but rather the impact of the bordellos on the state's image at a time when Nevada is trying to lure new business and diversify its economy.
While few observers think brothels will be outlawed, they expect the establishments to run into the biggest challenge in the next state legislative session since the counties were given the option of licensing them in 1971.
``I suspect that, for the first time in years, the issue will at least be debated,'' says Jim Joyce, one of the state's most prominent political lobbyists.
The latest wave of antibrothel sentiment began several months ago when Mr. Joyce and another powerful lobbyist and advertising executive, Sig Rogich, suggested the prostitution houses be banned to improve the state's image.
Their sentiments were later echoed by Stephen Wynn, owner of the Golden Nugget casino hotel here and one of the state's most influential businessmen. Arguing Nevada had ``outgrown'' legalized prostitution, he sent a letter to all state lawmakers this spring urging them to close the houses.
Since then the issue has reverberated with varying degrees of intensity throughout the state's political and business communities. No organized opposition has developed among casino operators or economic development interests, but Mr. Joyce says the business community is split on the issue.
``I know some very powerful people opposed,'' he says. ``I know some very powerful people who take the opposite view.''
Concern about the bordellos' impact on the state's reputation has galvanized groups who have long opposed legalized prostitution more on moral and health grounds. This includes the conservative Eagle Forum and the Committee to Abolish Brothels, a Las Vegas-based group formed two years ago. The state Republican Party called for a ban on brothels in its platform earlier this year.
Brothel owners are not taking these assaults sitting down. They are poised to do battle in the Legislature should the issue come up in the 1989 session, and believe they have the support - particularly among lawmakers in rural areas, where the brothels' licensing fees and taxes contribute to local treasuries - to keep the houses open.
``I don't see any great desire in the rural counties to shut them down,'' says Democratic Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, whose district includes several brothels.
Nevada remains the only state with legalized prostitution. Fixtures since the mining camps of the 1860s, brothels currently operate in 10 Nevada counties. The only state statute on the subject prohibits prostitution houses in jurisdictions of more than 250,000 people, which includes Clark County, home to Las Vegas.
Other local governments have the option of legalizing them. A number of cities and counties - including Reno and Carson City, the capital - have chosen not to. Thirty-two brothels are open in the state.
Critics contend that legalized prostitution is an antiquated idea that debases Nevada as it tries to boost tourism and move into the 21st century. Some opponents argue the houses encourage crime and corruption, while others worry about the spread of AIDS.
``The element they bring in is bad,'' says Jean Beam of the Committee to Abolish Brothels.
Brothel supporters, however, use some of the same arguments to buttress their case. Regulating prostitution, they argue, is better than allowing it to flourish in the streets. Unlike street walkers or those who operate illegally in the casinos, women in the brothels have to undergo checks for venereal disease and AIDS. Patrons are required to use condoms.
Advocates deny legalized prostitution scares businesses away.
``The brothels provide a service in a much more favorable way than street or any other form of prostitution,'' says George Flint, lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association and operator of a Reno wedding chapel.
All this is likely to get an airing when the Legislature convenes next year. Previous attempts to ban brothels haven't gotten far.
``I don't look to see them outlawed,'' says Joyce, ``but maybe the ultimate good will be a little more understanding of why have them.''