A Wyoming judge has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether she has the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples due to her religious beliefs.
Represented by the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, Judge Ruth Neely this month filed a petition asking the high court to review her case after the Wyoming Supreme Court publicly censured her earlier this year.
The case stems from Neely’s comments in a December 2014 interview with the Pinedale Roundup, during which a reporter asked Neely about a federal appeals court opinion that had struck down Wyoming’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. (This was six months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges to make marriage equality the law of the land.)
Though she had not yet been asked to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple, Neely said, “I will not be able to do them,” and that she’d refer such requests to another judge. “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made,” she said.
The choice for Neely should be to find a new job. Neely has two judicial roles: as the municipal judge for Pinedale, a community of about 2,000 in western Wyoming, and as a part-time circuit court magistrate for Sublette County (population about 10,000). As Pinedale judge, her job does not include marriages, but as magistrate, performing weddings is her primary responsibility.
If Neely can’t fairly perform her official government duties and marry whoever is in need of her services, she should relinquish the duty. Religious freedom gives everyone the right to believe, or not, as we see fit, but it does not give anyone the right to discriminate against others.
But Neely doesn’t see it that way. When the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics began to investigate in light of her comments to the newspaper, she told the commission: “Without getting in too deeply here, 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 or aid in another person’s deceit.” (I’m not sure how things work in Wyoming, but I don’t think buying beer is typically in the job description of the state’s magistrates.)
Government officials should not be able to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ people or anyone else.
The commission recommended she be removed from her positions 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 oversight body said.
Neely appealed the decision, and in March the Wyoming Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, ruled Neely had violated three rules of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct: promoting confidence in the judiciary; impartiality and fairness; and bias, prejudice and harassment.
The court did not order her to be removed from her job, but censured her and ordered her to either perform all marriages, including those for same-sex couples, or perform no marriages at all.
Neely’s attorneys have argued that judges can decline to perform marriages for non-religious reasons (being unavailable, for instance) and that it’s unfair that Neely can’t decline to perform weddings due to her religious beliefs about homosexuality. Wyoming’s Supreme Court countered that “no judge can turn down a request to perform a marriage for reasons that undermine the integrity of the judiciary by demonstrating a lack of independence and impartiality.”
Neely’s case, Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, is reminiscent of other cases in which government officials have tried to use their religious beliefs as an excuse for discrimination. Among the most notorious was Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who now may cost Kentucky taxpayers a quarter-million dollars for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Through our Protect Thy Neighbor campaign, AU has been involved in the several related legal battles and we’ll continue to fight against attempts to use religion as an excuse to harm others.