In what could be the nation’s first religious litmus test for holding a judicial post, the Wyoming Supreme Court is being asked to dismiss a small-town municipal court judge because of her biblical views about marriage. Attorneys for Judge Ruth Neely, along with a growing list of supporters, argue the efforts of an unelected state commission to remove her from office are rooted in religious bias and misinterpretation of the law.
In 2014, a judge overturned Wyoming’s marriage statute, allowing same-sex couples to get marriage licenses. A reporter asked Neely, the Pinedale municipal court judge and a part-time circuit court magistrate, if she was excited about performing gay weddings. In the opinion of the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, Neely gave the wrong answer: Her biblical convictions about marriage precluded her from solemnizing such a union.
In December 2014, with no formal complaint filed against Neely over her published remarks, Wendy Soto, executive director of the commission, initiated a judicial misconduct investigation. Within two weeks, the investigatory panel launched a full inquiry. By February 2016, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the Wyoming Supreme Court remove Neely from her posts, asserting her statement about the sanctity of marriage was tantamount to a refusal to obey the law.
“By adopting this extreme position, the commission has effectively said that no one who holds Judge Neely’s widely shared beliefs about marriage can remain a judge in Wyoming,” attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) wrote in their petition to the state Supreme Court.
Legal scholars from prominent universities, retired state Supreme Court and federal court justices, the Christian Legal Society, and Family Research Council stated in an amicus brief, “By its order and ensuing recommendation, the commission has created a de facto religious test for judicial office in Wyoming.”
ADF attorneys argue a contrived interpretation of state law led to the investigation. As a municipal court judge, Neely has no authority to officiate at weddings. As a circuit court magistrate, she can preside over weddings at her discretion. Neely has never been asked—and therefore never refused—to perform a same-sex wedding.
The judge’s religious beliefs about marriage can be the only “plausible reason” for the commission’s actions her attorneys wrote in their petition. Evidence of bias reared its head during oral arguments when “the commission’s attorney referred to Judge Neely’s church’s beliefs about marriage as ‘repugnant.’”
Kevin Rose, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church where Neely has been a member for 38 years, called the statement “an argument of intimidation.”
Three times Neely was asked to publically denounce her biblical convictions about marriage in return for dispensation. According to Neely’s testimony, reporter Ned Donovan “offered not to publish a story if she would agree to perform same-sex marriages.”
She declined the offer.
In 2015, the commission offered to forego its prosecution of Neely if she “would agree to resign both of her judicial positions, never again seek judicial office in Wyoming, admit wrongdoing, and allow the commission to publicly state that she had decided to resign in response to a charge of judicial misconduct,” her lawyers wrote.
Again, Neely declined.
In February, a week before filing their recommendation to the Supreme Court, the commission again asked Neely to publicly apologize and agree to perform same-sex marriages.
For the third time Neely refused.
“[They] have clearly targeted Judge Neely for her constitutionally protected religious beliefs and free expression,” Rose said. He was one of a few people aware of Neely’s legal battle before it was publicly disclosed in April. She met with him for counsel and prayer.
Pastor Tim Moyer, director of the Wyoming Pastors Network, said representatives from the 100 churches affiliated with the network met with and prayed for the judge, who lawyers said was not available for comment at this time.
“If Judge Neely is willing to suffer, we need to suffer with her,” Moyer said.
Since the public disclosure of the case, an eclectic band of supporters—from Pinedale’s LGBT residents to the Family Research Council—have rallied to the judge’s defense.
Within a week of ADF’s submitting a petition to the Wyoming Supreme Court, six amicus briefs, representing millions of people, were filed with the court. Each affirmed Neely’s work ethic and Christian conviction while warning the high court of the commission’s threat to free-speech.
Briefs were submitted by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, representing its 6,150 congregations, including Neely’s church; The National Association of Evangelicals; a dozen African-American and Hispanic ministry and public policy organizations; current and former Wyoming state legislators; the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and Pinedale’s mayor and three of the four town council members.
— by Bonnie Pritchett | BP