The state Supreme Court in Wyoming is considering charges that a municipal judge should be banned from the judiciary permanently and fined $40,000 for following the tenets of her Lutheran faith regarding marriage.
The claims against Judge Ruth Neely, a municipal judge in the small town of Pinedale as well as a part-time circuit court magistrate, were brought by the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.
The state agency got involved after a local reporter, upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s creation of same-sex “marriage,” asked Neely whether she was excited to perform such ceremonies.
Well, no, the judge responded, because her faith wouldn’t allow her to do that.
The dispute has caught the attention of two major defenders of religious rights, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Neely, and the Becket Fund for Religion Liberty, which took up her cause in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Oral arguments were held recently at the state’s highest court, and court officials told WND this week that a decision could come in a matter of a few weeks or months.
The issue is that Neely is not allowed to solemnize marriages in her role as a municipal judge. And while she is allowed to do so as a magistrate, it is not required of her. There is no pay for it, and magistrates can decline for personal reasons.
“It takes real chutzpah for the government to come in like the Keystone Kops but still ask an innocent judge to pay the price,” Becket Fund legal counsel Daniel Blomberg said as the case developed.
“If you ask the people of Pinedale, they say that Judge Neely has served the town with fairness and integrity for decades, and that they want to keep her. This judge shouldn’t lose her job because a bunch of bureaucrats decided they don’t like Lutherans.”
The organization said Neely “faces an unprecedented lifetime ban from the judiciary and $40,000 in fines for merely stating that her Lutheran faith prevents her from personally performing same-sex marriages.”
Even “local LGBT citizens” have been calling the state agency’s prosecution “obscene and offensive,” Becket reported.
The organization also pointed out that the government’s prosecutor, Patrick Dixon “fumbled” the case.
He admitted that neither the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell “nor any other law says that Judge Neely has to perform any given marriage,” the organization said.
Dixon also admitted that several of the assertions that the government made in its briefs were wrong, conceding the state does not pay small-town judges like Neely to perform weddings and that judges can decline to personally perform them.
Blomberg noted that same-sex couples can have state marriage ceremonies performed, but “judges like Judge Neely don’t have to participate.”
ADF explained the details, including her responsibilities as a municipal judge for traffic cases, animal control issues, public intoxication cases and more.
“Judge Neely has also served as a part-time circuit court magistrate for approximately 14 years. In that capacity, she has the authority to do things like administer oaths, issue subpoenas, conduct bond hearings, issue warrants, and solemnize marriages. Although Judge Neely ‘may perform the ceremony of marriage’ as a magistrate, she has no legal obligation or duty to do so.”
The Commission on Judicial Conduct eventually alleged that “by merely communicating her religious beliefs about marriage and her inability to serve as a celebrant for same-sex marriage, Judge Neely failed to follow the law and manifested bias and prejudice.”
The commission’s website lists current members as Priscilla Dillon of Sheridan, Barbara Dilts of Cheyenne, Ray Elser of Jackson, Mary Flitner of Greybull, Donna Heinz of Torrington, Leslie Petersen of Wilson, Jay Gilbertz of Sheridan, Melvin Orchard III of Jackson, Scott Ortiz of Casper, Wendy Bartlett of Gilette, Wade Waldrip of Rawlins and Norman Young of Lander.
A WND message left with the commission director, Wendy Soto, requesting comment did not generate a response.
Court documents note the threat that the state commission’s action presents.
“In a chilling forecast, the commission leaves no doubt that if it has its way, no judge who holds Judge Neely’s religious beliefs about marriage can remain on the bench once the public learns of those beliefs. According to the commission, any judge who believes as Judge Neely does must hide the very convictions that animate her life.”
The briefs also explain that Wyoming’s constitution was framed specifically with the intention of forbidding “the state from invoking religious beliefs about marriage” to disqualify citizens from public office because of its Mormon population.
The Supreme Court, therefore, “should conclude that the framers’ intent confirms what plain language says: that the state cannot remove Judge Neely from her … position because of her religious beliefs and expression about marriage.”
Her defenders continued, “The commission’s insistence that Judge Neely has a duty to solemnize marriages serves only to highlight that it is targeting her because of her religious beliefs.”
Wyoming legal officials are not the only ones trying to restrict the exercise of religion. WND reported only weeks ago two simultaneous rulings.
The U.S. Supreme Court left standing a lower court decision that Washington state pharmacists who are Christian must violate their faith to practice their profession by dispensing abortion pills.
The second decision came from a federal judge in Mississippi with a reputation for ruling against Christians who said county clerks in the state must violate their faith to hold their office.
The Supreme Court’s move alarmed Justice Samuel Alito, who warned there was evidence that the “impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the state.”
The Mississippi ruling from Judge Carlton Reeves, who once punished a school district for allowing a voluntary prayer at an optional awards ceremony, said clerks in the state cannot cite their religious beliefs to excuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to homosexual duos.
That case already had been litigated in Kentucky, where Judge David Bunning reached the same conclusion, ordering Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to violate her faith. When she declined, Bunning abruptly jailed her with no due process.
But Kentucky’s legislature simply adopted a provision protecting clerks’ religious rights, and Davis asked that the federal case be closed.
In Mississippi, however, not even action by state lawmakers was sufficient for Reeves, who ordered not only that clerks be required to provide services that violate their faith, they must be given “formal notice” of the requirement that they violate their faith.
WND previously has documented the Big List of cases where there have been government rulings that removed religious rights from Christians.
Missouri State University, for example, dismissed a student from a counseling program for expressing opposition to counseling same-sex duos.
In Texas, David and Edie Delmore, who own a bakery, were approached by Ben Valencia and Luis Marmolejo about a cake for a “gay wedding.” They declined, referring the potential customers to other bakers. Subsequently, they claim their home has been vandalized and their son has been threatened with rape by a broken beer bottle.
One business even was attacked for answering a hypothetical question on the issue.
Family owned Memories Pizza in Indiana came into the crosshairs of homosexuals when an owner was interviewed by a local TV station in the aftermath of the adoption of the state’s religious freedom law. Responding to a reporter’s question, the owner said that while her restaurant serves “gays,” her Christian faith wouldn’t allow her to cater a “gay wedding.” The restaurant immediately became a focal point of outrage toward the law, with threats of death and destruction, causing the owners to shut down their business.