SUBLETTE COUNTY – On Friday, attorneys for Pinedale Judge Ruth Neely filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a review of the state high court’s split-vote to censure her as a magistrate whose religious beliefs would conflict with her marrying a same-sex couple.
The Aug. 4 petition, Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, argues the commission wrongfully filed a judicial-misconduct complaint against her in December 2014, which Neely appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court last year – and lost.
Earlier in December 2014, a local reporter asked Neely if as a part-time circuit court magistrate she was “excited” to perform same-sex marriages when they became legal in Wyoming. Neely replied that no same-sex couple had asked her to do so and her religious beliefs would not allow her to perform any weddings except between a man and a woman.
The state commission investigated, held that Neely committed judicial misconduct and ordered her removal from her role as municipal judge and magistrate. Neely appealed, arguing the state was punishing her for comments about marriage, violating her First Amendment rights to free exercise and free speech.
The petition appeals the Wyoming Supreme Court’s 3-2 majority decision in March that censured her and ordered her as magistrate to either do any and all weddings or do none, due to her religious beliefs. Her attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argued that magistrates have various “secular” reasons to turn down a wedding request – from getting their hair done to watching a football game.
Neely testified that she did not have any prejudice against any person in a same-sex relationship.
“The majority applied strict scrutiny to Judge Neely’s First Amendment claims and found that standard satisfied despite acknowledging that ‘there is no evidence of injury to respect for the judiciary’ or to ‘any person’ and that it was ‘not likely’ that a same-sex couple would ask Judge Neely to marry them,” the petition states.
The question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court is: “Does a state violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause or Free Speech Clause when it punishes a judge who has discretionary authority to solemnize marriages because she states that her religious beliefs preclude her from performing a same-sex marriage?”
Because other magistrates can decline to perform weddings “for myriad secular reasons, imposing this all or nothing ultimatum on Judge Neely alone singles out her faith for disfavored treatment,” the petition states. “… Punishing people of faith for merely expressing those beliefs conflicts with our nation’s constitutional commitment to free speech.”
The petition further states that the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics “erred in concluding that Judge Neely’s speech is not constitutionally protected” and “removing Judge Neely from her magistrate position would violate” her religious liberty under the Wyoming Constitution and her free-exercise and free-speech rights under both the Wyoming and U.S. constitutions.
“The state insists that a religious need to refer wedding requests is less worthy than a secular one,” said senior counsel Jim Campbell. “Such targeting of religion for disfavored treatment is odious to the First Amendment.”
ADF attorneys said Friday after filing the Supreme Court petition that Wyoming has 30 days to respond and if extra time is requested, the response might not be received until early October or November. Then ADF and Neely will have 10 days to file a brief reply.
For more about Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, go to adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/10341.