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Targeted for marriage beliefs, judge appeals to high court

WASHINGTON (BP) — A longtime municipal judge and circuit court magistrate is seeking relief from the U.S. Supreme Court after the state of Wyoming fired her for telling a reporter she believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

Pinedale, Wyo., Judge Ruth Neely petitioned the Supreme Court Aug. 4 to hear her case after the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics forced her to stop solemnizing marriages, ending her career as a part-time magistrate.

The state violated Neely’s right to free speech, her Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys said in asking the Supreme Court to declare that a judge cannot be punished for expressing beliefs about marriage.

“No one should be punished simply for expressing a belief about marriage that is ‘based on decent and honorable religious … premises’ and is held ‘in good faith by reasonable and sincere people,'” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, quoting the high court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage. “The state allows magistrates to decline wedding requests for countless secular reasons — because they refuse to perform weddings for strangers, because they simply don’t feel like marrying the couple, or because they prefer to watch a football game.

“But the state forbids Judge Neely from saying that she would need to decline some wedding requests for a religious reason,” Cortman said in an ADF press release. “This unconstitutionally targets religion for disfavored treatment, and that’s why we’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case.”

The Wyoming commission also sought to have Neely removed from her municipal judgeship she has held 22 years — a post that does not include solemnizing marriages — but that portion of the commission’s decision did not survive Neely’s appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Rather the state’s highest court, in its March decision, agreed with the commission that Neely could no longer solemnize marriages as a magistrate, which caused her to lose her magistrate position.

Neely’s ordeal began after she said in a Dec. 2014 press interview that her belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman would prevent her from performing same-sex weddings, although she never responded to an actual gay marriage request, the ADF said. Other magistrates could perform such unions, Neely told the reporter.

The commission filed a complaint against her in March 2015, charging that her comments to the reporter constituted judicial misconduct, the ADF said. The commission in February 2016 recommended her removal from both of her positions. Neely lost her appeal to the state supreme court, and is continuing her case at the federal level.

No evidence suggests that Neely’s religious beliefs regarding marriage harmed “respect for the judiciary” or “any person,” the ADF said in a synopsis of Neely’s case at adflegal.org.

“Judge Neely has an unblemished record of integrity, impartiality, and fairness in the courtroom,” the ADF said. “If a case were to come before her that required her to recognize a same-sex marriage, it is undisputed that she would recognize that marriage.”