A Wyoming judge who believes she has a “religious freedom” right to refuse service to same-sex couples may soon be looking for work.
Ruth Neely is a magistrate judge in Pinedale, a town of about 2,000 in the northwest part of the state. When marriage equality became the law of the land thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, Neely apparently felt she could opt out of marrying same-sex couples because of her beliefs – even though that is her only real function as a magistrate.
“When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made,” she told the Pinedale Roundup.
A Wyoming court will decide whether or not Ruth Neely's religious beliefs are a valid excuse for not doing her job.
But Neely was never given the option of picking and choosing which marriage ceremonies she conducts, and she was investigated by Wyoming’s judicial ethics advisory commission. The commission has recommended she be removed from her position because her public comments revealed her bias against same-sex couples and could cause the public to question both the integrity and impartiality of the state judiciary should she remain on the bench.
“Judges do not enjoy the same freedom to proselytize their religious beliefs as ordinary citizens," the commission said, after concluding that she violated ethics rules.
It added that Neely’s attitude suggests she believes “adherence to the law is optional,” which is probably not the best outlook for a judge.
But Neely isn’t going down without a fight – albeit a poorly argued one.
She told the commission: “Homosexuality is a named sin in the Bible, as are drunkenness, thievery, lying, and the like. I can no more officiate at a same-sex wedding than I can buy beer for the alcoholic.”
But that comparison fails because Neely’s job isn’t to buy beer for anyone; her job does, however, require her to marry all qualified couples.
Still, Neely’s attorney contends that individual religious belief trumps job requirements. The commission, he said, “has adopted an extreme position. It claims that because Judge Neely’s religious beliefs prevent her from solemnizing same-sex marriage, she cannot be a judge in Wyoming, even in a position that does not have authority to perform marriages.”
Of course, that isn’t true. Neely can be a judge if she follows the rules. And she can believe whatever she wants about religion, too. She just can’t refuse to perform her job duties on the basis of her beliefs.
NBC News has reported that Neely is partly suspended while the Wyoming Supreme Court considers her case. She cannot act as a magistrate judge, but she is still Pinedale’s town judge.
Americans United has taken action concerning other judges who have similarly asserted religious justifications for refusing to perform their job duties. One judge, in Ohio, refused to marry same-sex couples because he thought he could ask someone else to perform the task in his place. Another, in Texas, took the same stance as Neely and said he “will only be conducting traditional marriages.”
As part of Americans United’s Protect Thy Neighbor project, we are responding to cases of government officials and owners of for-profit businesses who refuse service to same-sex couples or others based on religious beliefs. So if you believe you’ve been discriminated against in the name of “religious freedom,” please let us know.