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Wyoming Supreme Court Censures Pinedale Judge Who Refused to Perform Same-Sex Marriages

Wyoming Supreme Court
Amy Richards, Townsquare Media

The Pinedale judge who said she would not perform same-sex marriages has been publicly censured by the Wyoming Supreme Court, but will keep her job.

In an order filed Tuesday, Justice Kate M. Fox delivers the opinion of the court, which holds Judge Ruth Neely violated three rules — promoting confidence in the judiciary; impartiality and fairness; and bias, prejudice and harassment — of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct.

Justices voted 3-2 in the decision.

Justice Keith G. Kautz filed a dissenting opinion, finding that Neely did not violate the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct, with which Justice Michael K. Davis agreed.

The court ruled that Neely¬†“must perform her judicial functions, including performing marriages, with impartiality.”

“She must either commit to performing marriages regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation, or cease performing all marriage ceremonies,” the court says. But, as the decision reads,¬†that doesn’t mean that judges cannot turn down any request to perform a marriage.

“What it means is that no judge can turn down a request to perform a marriage for reasons that undermine the integrity of the judiciary by demonstrating a lack of independence and impartiality,” the ruling reads. “This is no different than allowing parties to exercise the right to peremptory challenges of jurors for any reason, while prohibiting them from challenging jurors on the basis of race or gender.”

The court says depending on Neely’s choice about whether to perform same-sex marriages, it will be up to the Sublette County Circuit Court judge to determine whether Neely will continue as a part-time circuit court magistrate.

On December 5, 2014, a Pinedale Roundup reporter called Neely and asked if she was “excited” to be able to perform same-sex marriages following a decision from the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming enjoining the state from enforcing or applying any “state law, policy, or practice, as a basis to deny marriage to same-sex couples.”

“I will not be able to do them,” Neely told the reporter, as quoted in the court’s ruling. “We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages, but I will not be able to.”

Neely also said, “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made. I have not yet been asked to perform a same-sex marriage.”

She was quoted in a Dec. 9, 2014 edition of the Pinedale Roundup.

On Jan. 6, 2015, the Investigatory Panel of the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics began to investigate and sent Neely a letter of inquiry.

In December 2015, the commission recommended Neely be removed from her positions as municipal court judge and part-time circuit court magistrate.

At no point did Neely turn down any marriage request from a same-sex couple, the court notes.

Neely told the investigatory panel, “my conscience, formed by my religious convictions, will not allow me to solemnize the marriage of two men or two women.”

“Please keep my and others’ First Amendment rights in mind,” Neely told the commission. “I want to continue to officiate at weddings; and I should not have to fear that lawful exercise of my freedom of religion as a member of a Lutheran church in Pinedale, Wyoming would be a violation of the Code.”

The court found that Neely’s religious beliefs were not at issue. Rather, the decision to censure resulted from Neely’s conduct as a judge.

“This case is not about same-sex marriage or the reasonableness of religious beliefs,” the majority opinion reads. “This case is also not about imposing a religious test on judges.”

“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,” the court says.

Kautz “respectfully, but vigorously,” dissents, saying the case is of “the utmost importance” to the State of Wyoming.

“Contrary to the position asserted by the majority opinion, 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,” Kautz writes.

“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 dissent continues. “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 opinion reads.

But the majority opinion’s conclusion that “Judge Neely’s expressed refusal to conduct same-sex marriages violates the Code of Judicial Conduct,” the opinion reads, “is in line with every other tribunal that has considered the question.”

The purpose of judicial discipline, the majority opinion states, is primarily to protect the public.

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