A state agency wants to remove a small-town judge in Wyoming from two posts because she told a reporter that her religious beliefs would prevent her from solemnizing same-sex marriages.
In her full-time responsibilities, Municipal Judge Ruth Neely isn’t authorized to preside over marriages. In part-time duties on the local Circuit Court, though, she could be asked to do so.
Now supporters across Wyoming and the nation are siding with Neely as she asks the Wyoming Supreme Court to prevent the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics from ending her 21-year career as a municipal judge in Pinedale, a town with a population of 2,030 just south of Yellowstone National Park.
The commission also seeks to impose a fine of up to $40,000 on Neely for saying her religious beliefs preclude her from doing gay marriages—nearly twice the $22,914 annual salary she made three years ago as a municipal judge with an office in Pinedale Town Hall.
“The fundamental principle that no judge should be expelled from office because of her core convictions unites a diverse group of Wyoming’s citizens, including members of the LGBT community who have expressed dismay at the commission’s actions here,” Neely’s lawyers argue in a brief filed at the state’s highest court.
Pinedale resident Kathryn Anderson—whom they identified as part of that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community—said in an affidavit that “it would be obscene and offensive to discipline Judge Neely for her statement … about her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
Anderson, a lesbian, was married to another woman in 2014 by one of at least nine other public officials in Pinedale, besides clergy, empowered to officiate at weddings, Neely’s lawyers said in court papers. She said she didn’t ask Neely because she knew of the judge’s religious views.
In a formal statement on the case, Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said:
In America, the government doesn’t get to punish people for their religious beliefs—especially not for beliefs that the U.S. Supreme Court itself, in the very opinion that recognized same-sex marriage, said were ‘decent and honorable’ and held ‘in good faith by reasonable and sincere people.’
The Becket Fund, which this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Neely, is one of the most well-known organizations to rush to her defense.
‘Serve the Community’
Other groups and individuals filing briefs on her behalf include the Hispanic Leadership Conference; National Black Church Initiative; Coalition of African American Pastors USA; National Black Religious Broadcasters; Alveda King Ministries, led by a niece of Martin Luther King Jr.; and Heritage Foundation scholar Ryan T. Anderson.
Neely is one of a growing number of judges and other officers of the court targeted by self-identified progressives who argue that religious convictions about marriage are trumped by the political goals of those who successfully sought to redefine marriage in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.
Even when an arrangements can be made for someone else to officiate at a same-sex wedding, the Becket Fund and other organizations argue, judges who decline to do so on First Amendment grounds face campaigns to remove them.
Neely, in her early 60s, has been an active member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Pinedale for 38 years, during most of which she taught Sunday school. For the past 24 years, she has directed the church’s tone chime choir.
“I believe it to be part of my duty as a follower of Jesus Christ to use my talents to serve the community,” Neely said in an affidavit, adding:
I truly care about all the people whose cases I preside over, and in deciding their cases, I seek not only to ensure that justice is achieved, but also to help those individuals better themselves in the local community.
‘Choices Have to Be Made’
The Neely case began in December 2014, shortly after a federal judge in Casper, Wyo., struck down a state law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. A reporter from a local newspaper asked Neely whether she would be “excited” to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies, her lawyers said.
Neely, who used to work at the same newspaper, told the reporter that because of her religious beliefs, she would “not be able to do” same-sex marriages. She had not yet been asked to perform one, and other magistrates were available, she told the reporter, who quoted her in a story published Dec. 11, 2014.
“When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made,” she was quoted as saying.
The chairwoman of the Wyoming Democratic Party forwarded the article to the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, according to a sequence of events published in the Casper Star Tribune.
The Democratic official, Ana Cuprill, told the Star Tribune:
My concern in passing on that information was that I felt that any judgment that Judge Neely would have in the future might be challenged if there was some sort of an issue with someone who is LGBT and felt prejudiced, and that would be a liability in our town. … I was concerned when she said she was not going to follow the law.
In March 2015, the commission notified Neely that it was beginning formal disciplinary proceedings, alleging she had broken rules of judicial conduct, her lawyers said.
The agency alleged that by communicating her religious beliefs about marriage and her inability to solemnize same-sex marriages, Neely failed to follow the law and showed bias or prejudice based on sexual orientation.
Judge Curt Haws, the only full-time magistrate of the Circuit Court for the 9th Judicial District, suspended Neely from her part-time duties there in January 2015, telling her in a face-to-face meeting that it would be best, her lawyers say.
Neely volunteers on the steering committee of the local drug treatment court and was part of the committee that reviewed the same procedural rules now being used against her, according to court papers.
The judge and her husband, Gary, co-owned Bucky’s Outdoors, a popular “big boy toy store” offering snowmobiles and other gear, for many years before selling it. He continues to work there.
Pinedale Mayor Bob Jones called Neely a “tremendous asset to the community” in an affidavit, adding:
I know Ruth and Gary to be solid, unselfish, and caring people who are always willing to help those in need, especially the down-and-out in the community.
Neely worked as a schoolteacher in Fulda, Minn., after graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College, a 134-year-old liberal arts school in St. Peter, Minn., founded by Swedish Lutheran immigrants.
The couple married in St. Peter in 1977, just before moving to Pinedale. They have one grown daughter and two grandchildren.
According to the brief Neely’s lawyers filed April 29 with the state Supreme Court, the judicial ethics commission told the judge it would drop the proceedings if she agreed to resign as both a full-time municipal judge, where her duties don’t include marriages, and as a Circuit Court magistrate, where she “may” perform marriages.
In addition, the commission wanted Neely to admit wrongdoing and agree not to seek judicial office again in the state. The judge turned down the deal, her lawyers said.
This past February, the judicial ethics commission asked Neely to make a public apology and agree to officiate at same-sex weddings. She replied that to do so would violate her religious beliefs, the judge’s lawyers said.
The commission then recommended to the Wyoming Supreme Court that Neely be removed from both judgeships.
Neely is represented by Wyoming lawyer Herbert K. Doby and by three lawyers from the Arizona-based Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom—James A. Campbell, Kenneth J. Connelly, and Douglas G. Wardlow.
In court papers, they skewer the commission for insisting that Neely cannot remain a judge, even though her main job as a municipal judge gives her no authority to perform weddings:
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.
‘Find Another Line of Work’
Jason Marsden, a former Wyoming resident who is executive director of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation, told the Associated Press that Neely can’t do her job:
You can’t have a piecemeal government, or government by checkbox for the personal beliefs and bias of people who for a time hold a public office. If you want to hold a public office, you have to serve the public under the law, and if you can’t do that, you need to find another line of work.
The foundation is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming whom attackers beat, tied to a fence, and left to die in 1998. A federal hate crimes law now bears his name.
In her full-time duties of nearly 21 years, Neely hears cases arising under the ordinances of the town of Pinedale, which generally involve traffic and parking violations, animal control issues, and minor misdemeanors such as public intoxication and underage drinking.
For about 14 years, Neely also has served part time as a Circuit Court magistrate. Her lawyers say her authority extends to administering oaths, issuing subpoenas and search and arrest warrants, conducting bond hearings, and solemnizing marriages.
The law, however, appears to give a magistrate discretion in exercising that authority, saying he or she “may” officiate at wedding ceremonies.
Wendy Soto, executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, said in an email Wednesday that the agency “will not respond” to The Daily Signal’s questions about why it pursued the case after the Democratic official brought it to the agency’s attention.
Soto referred The Daily Signal to procedural rules on the commission’s website and said the agency will not provide the names of individuals and organizations that support its actions against Neely.
Doby, the judge’s local attorney, did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment. A spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom told The Daily Signal on Thursday that its lawyers will not comment on the case.
In court papers, her lawyers specify two alternatives that would allow Neely to remain a magistrate without compromising her religious beliefs.
In one, the state could allow her to refer same-sex marriage requests to other magistrates. Or, magistrates could route all wedding-related requests to a clerk, who would get details from the couple and then connect them with a “willing and available” magistrate.
Neely’s lawyers remind the Supreme Court that magistrates may decline to officiate at weddings for secular reasons, and other judges may disqualify themselves from other proceedings because of strongly held views or beliefs:
Indeed, just as the state could easily accommodate a judge who, for conscience reasons, needs to recuse [himself] from death-penalty cases or a judge who, after experiencing sexual assault, cannot preside over rape cases, the state could readily accommodate Judge Neely here.
The judge’s lawyers ask the Supreme Court to reject the commission’s recommendation to expel her, and to “allow her to continue serving her community with excellence as she has done for more than two decades.”
The conclusion of the brief reads:
Our society asks a lot of judges, but we do not ask them to abandon their convictions, whether religious or secular. Removing Judge Neely from the bench would send a clear message that anyone who shares her honorable and widely held religious beliefs about marriage is not fit for the judiciary (even for a position without authority to solemnize marriages).
Worse yet, it would jeopardize the career of any judge who holds a belief about any potentially divisive issue, because once the [judicial ethics] commission learns that a judge holds a view it does not like, it can invoke the machinery of the state to pursue that judge’s demise. Thus, a ruling for Judge Neely would protect not just her conscience rights, but those of every judge in Wyoming.
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