(CN) – A Wyoming judge who said she wouldn’t perform same-sex marriages because of her religious beliefs has been ordered to either perform all marriage ceremonies when asked, regardless of sexual orientation, or not do any at all.
The Wyoming Supreme Court also decided Sublette County Judge Ruth Neely should be publicly censured but won’t remove her from her municipal court duties and part-time circuit court magistrate position, saying she is a widely respected judge who hasn’t turned down any requests to perform a marriage ceremony.
In the majority opinion, Justice Kate Fox wrote that the case isn’t about same-sex marriages or religious beliefs.
“Rather, it is about maintaining the public’s faith in an independent and impartial judiciary that conducts its judicial functions according to the rule of law, independent of outside influences, including religion, and without regard to whether a law is popular or unpopular,” she wrote in the 3-2 ruling.
Justices Keith Kantz and Michael Davis didn’t agree. In the dissent authored by Kantz, they argued “the issues considered here determine whether there is a religious test for who may serve as a judge in Wyoming,” which is of utmost importance to the state as it confronts “new and challenging issues, where the parts of the legal landscape recently changed dramatically and rapidly.”
Kantz added: “(The majority) 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.”
The dissent noted Neely hasn’t disputed the legality of same-sex marriages, nor has she been asked to perform one. She testified that if a same-sex couple requested a marriage ceremony, she would “ensure the couple received the services that they requested by very kindly giving them the names and phone numbers of other magistrates who could perform their wedding.”
The case stems from Neely telling a reporter in 2014 that she couldn’t perform a same-sex marriage because of her religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. The situation was investigated by the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, which recommended Neely be removed from the bench for violating professional conduct rules.
Neely appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which issued its decision Tuesday.
Neely couldn’t be reached for comment. But attorney Jim Campbell with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based religious advocacy law firm that represented Neely, said she “looks forward to serving her community for many years to come.”
He noted the Cowboy State’s high court refused to boot Neely from the bench.
“By affirming that Judge Neely may remain in her judicial positions, the Wyoming Supreme Court has recognized that her honorable beliefs about marriage do not disqualify her from serving her community as a judge, which she has done with distinction for more than two decades,” Campbell stated in a statement. “The court rejected the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics’ recommendation that Judge Neely be removed from office for expressing her belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. The court also stated that removing her would have ‘unnecessarily circumscribe[d] protected expression’ and thus violated the Constitution.”
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