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The following originally appeared on the Sutherland Institute blog. To see the original post, click here.
Probably thanks to both increased attention and heightened conflict, every few weeks or so, we see a new story featuring a conflict over religious belief and a new intolerance of those beliefs when they are contrary to current philosophies of family and sexuality.
The most recent example is the criticism of hosts of a television show who attended a church considered insufficiently supportive of same-sex marriage. This particular controversy appears to have died down, with a promise to feature a same-sex couple on the show.
It’s important, though, to remember that each instance, epic or trivial, has a real human story behind it.
In July 2016, Sutherland Institute joined an amicus brief submitted to the Wyoming Supreme Court in one of these cases.
It involves a local judge, Ruth Neely, who has been honorably serving the town of Pinedale, Wyoming, for more than two decades, having been appointed and reappointed by four different mayors. Since 2001, she has also served as a part-time circuit court magistrate. In that position, she is allowed to perform marriages but is not legally required to.
Same-sex marriage was legally mandated in Wyoming after state officials decided not to defend the state’s marriage law, which had been struck down by a federal judge in October 2014. Though Judge Neely had never been asked to officiate at a same-sex wedding, a reporter at the Pinedale Roundup called to ask Neely if she would do so if asked. After explaining she had not been asked to, she also explained her religious belief that marriage is the union of a husband and wife. In a subsequent conversation, the reporter offered not to run a story if Neely would “state a willingness to perform same-sex marriages.”
There is no concern that if Neely referred a couple to someone else to officiate the wedding, this would end access to marriages since, as Neely’s attorneys note, “any ‘upstanding’ citizen can become authorized to perform a wedding in Sublette County.”
After the story was published, a resident of Pinedale (and chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party) sent the article to the executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, who had also served on the board of Wyoming Equality, an advocacy organization that had challenged the state’s marriage law in court.
In January 2015, the commission decided to investigate Neely for alleged ethical violations based on her statement of her religious beliefs about marriage. She was suspended from her court magistrate service because of the investigation.
At the end of that month, the Roundup reporter wrote a column saying: “It is sad that Judge Ruth Neely is still in an office of responsibility, almost two months after admitting to me that she would not officiate in same-sex marriages.”
On February 18, 2015, the commission began formal proceedings against Neely, officially charging her with four ethical violations a few weeks later. In August, the commission added two more charges because Neely had hired a religious liberty organization called Alliance Defending Freedom to represent her. The commission said ADF was an “an organization that discriminates and advocates for discrimination” since it supports marriage as between a man and a woman – as it was universally understood prior to the recent court rulings. These two amended charges had to be dropped after Neely challenged them.
Just under a year ago, a panel of the commission issued its opinion that Neely violated ethical rules. In February 2016, the commission recommended that the Wyoming Supreme Court remove Neely from both of her judicial positions. It must be underscored that this was solely because she had expressed her religious beliefs about marriage.
On August 17, 2016, the formal oral argument in the case was held in the Wyoming Supreme Court. A decision could come at any time.
This legal recital should not mask the bottom line: An individual’s livelihood is at stake because of the expression of her religious beliefs.
Surely, this is too extreme a result for a polite disagreement with a position that was almost unheard of when Neely first took office. We cannot lose sight of these kinds of real human stories.