The Wyoming Supreme Court had mixed news this month for a municipal court judge who had expressed a personal religious belief about marriage to a reporter. While the state’s high court rejected a recommendation by the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics that Judge Ruth Neely be removed from her post, it decided, in a 3-2 ruling, to order a public censure for her and to impose a requirement that, if she solemnizes any marriage, she must not distinguish according to her biblical belief.
Judge Neely has since 1994 served as a municipal judge in Pinedale, Wyoming, and since 2001 acted as a part-time circuit court magistrate. In that capacity, she has the authority, though not the duty, to solemnize marriages. In 2014, a reporter called her to ask if she would be “excited” to perform same-sex marriages, and she indicated that, while another magistrate could provide that service, she had a religious objection. This led to an investigation by the state ethics commission and its recommendation that she be forced out of both her positions.
Neely’s Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, Jim Campbell, highlighted that the Wyoming Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirmed that “her honorable beliefs about marriage do not disqualify her from serving her community as a judge” and that the ruling “stated that removing her would have ‘unnecessarily circumscribe[d] protected expression’ and thus violated the Constitution.” Indeed, the judges issuing the majority opinion sought to emphasize their view that the case was neither about “the reasonableness of religious beliefs” nor “about imposing a religious test on judges.” Instead, they claimed to view it in light of “maintaining the public’s faith in an independent and impartial judiciary.”
However, the two “vigorously” dissenting high court judges believed it was very much about beliefs and a religious test. For them the case was about “whether a judge may be precluded from one of the functions of office not for her actions, but for her statements about her religious views.” They argued that there was no convincing evidence of any actual violation of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct, and they objected to action against her. The dissenting judges declared, “In our pluralistic society, the law should not be used to coerce ideological conformity.”
In a National Review article, Bill Duncan of the Sutherland Institute called Neely’s situation “instructive.” He was pleased she wasn’t forced out of her job; however, he explained his concern of the lasting damage of the censure after she simply expressed her beliefs regarding a hypothetical question. He said, “To stave off a hypothetical violation of constitutional rights, the court has sanctioned an actual violation of constitutional rights. And that should worry all Americans, regardless of their views on same-sex marriage.”
The Wyoming Supreme Court majority ruling and the minority dissent are available here.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: March 24, 2017