Wyoming Judge Takes Religious Freedom Fight to SCOTUS

JudgeOn August 4, 2017, Judge Ruth Neely filed a request for review (Cert Petition) with the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an egregious public censure by the Wyoming Supreme Court. The court punished her for her stated position against hypothetically performing a so-called “same-sex marriage.”

In a 3-2 split decision on March 7, the Wyoming Supreme Court majority violated Judge Neely’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, while making the fallacious claim, “This case is not about same-sex marriage or the reasonableness of religious beliefs” (emphasis in the original). 

Justices Keith G. Kautz and Michael K. Davis “respectfully, but vigorously, dissent[ed]” and directly contradicted the majority’s position, “This case is about religious beliefs and same sex marriage.”

“The issues considered here determine whether there is a religious test for who may serve as a judge in Wyoming. They consider 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. The issues determine whether there is room in Wyoming for judges with various religious beliefs. The issues here decide whether Wyoming’s constitutional provisions about freedom of religion and equality of every person can coexist. And, this case determines whether there are job requirements on judges beyond what the legislature has specified.”

Background:

Judge Ruth Neely has served as a municipal judge since 1994 and as a part-time circuit court magistrate since around 2001. One of her primary roles as a magistrate was to conduct weddings (a power not granted by her position as municipal judge).

In December 2014, a local Pinedale reporter asked Judge Neely via phone if she was looking forward to performing so-called “same-sex marriages” after a policy change in Wyoming. Judge Neely made it clear she would put a hypothetical couple in contact with others who could and would, but out of religious conviction she would not be able to perform the ceremony. After a local article relating her beliefs was published, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics began investigating Judge Neely for her public comments.

Before learning of the investigation, Judge Neely made an inquiry to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee seeking guidance and asked if a magistrate could “recuse himself/herself from officiating at a same sex wedding due to religious conviction; and if so, without fear of civil rights repercussions?” She made her biblical convictions clear in her request:

“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 cannot knowingly be complicit in another’s sin. Does that mean I cannot be impartial on the bench when that homosexual or habitual liar or thief comes before me with a speeding ticket? Or the alcoholic appears before me for yet another charge of public intoxication? No. Firmly, no. I have been the municipal court judge for the Town of Pinedale for over 20 years; and there has not been one claim of bias or prejudice made by anyone who has come before me. Not the homosexual, not the alcoholic, not the liar, not the thief. Not one.”

Later, under oath, Judge Neely reiterated her beliefs and boundaries. The commission recommended she “be removed from her positions as municipal court judge and part-time circuit court magistrate.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court decision, while allowing her to retain her position as judge, gave her an ultimatum regarding her magisterial duties: either reject her conscience and perform so-called “same-sex marriage” ceremonies or cease performing weddings altogether. This effectively terminated her ability to serve as a part-time circuit court magistrate.

Even more exasperating is the practice that allows magistrates in Wyoming to refuse performing weddings for a wide range of secular reasons, including not being acquainted with the couple, feeling unwell, or even wanting to watch a sporting event instead. Judge Neely was clearly targeted, and made an example, for her religious beliefs—against her constitutional rights.

At the National Center for Life and Liberty, we continue fighting for your religious liberty, and other God-granted rights, on multiple fronts. We make your voice heard in courts, legislatures, and in the public square. We litigate, testify, and educate on the basis of freedom for you and all Americans.