Municipal Judge and Circuit Court Magistrate Ruth Neely has served the small town of Pinedale, Wyo., for more than twenty years. She is well-recognized and respected within her community, garnering praise from local mayors, citizens, and attorneys for her fairness and impartiality. Nevertheless, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, which agrees that Judge Neely has “served the community well,” has launched a crusade against her (as capably summarized in this article from Rod Dreher).
The state agency is demanding that she be banned from the judiciary and pay up to $40,000 in fines for the crime of publicly expressing her religious convictions. In an interview in 2014, shortly after same-sex marriage had been legalized in the state, she said that she would not be able to perform gay weddings, stating “We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex weddings but I will not be able to. […] When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made.”
This was sufficient for the agency to claim that she had “manifested a bias” and to issue her an ultimatum saying that they would forego prosecution only if she agreed to “resign both of her judicial positions, never again seek judicial office in Wyoming, admit wrongdoing, and allow the Commission to publicly state that she had decided to resign in response to a charge of judicial misconduct.” This despite the fact that no one has ever asked Judge Neely to officiate a gay wedding in the first place. This despite the fact that the Wyoming Constitution explicitly states that no one can be found incompetent to hold public office “because of his opinion on any matter of religious belief whatsoever.” And this despite the fact that in her role as a municipal judge she has no authority to solemnize weddings, and that as a part-time magistrate she is under no legal obligation to perform any marriages at all, a fact which the state agency admits. Other magistrates can and do decline such requests because, for example, they only want to perform marriages for friends and family, or they would rather go fishing, or they simply “don’t feel like it.”
Judge Neely has never challenged the legality of gay marriage, and has always affirmed that she will treat gay citizens equally, and that she will treat all married gay couples as legally married in any case that comes before her. She has stated that, should she ever be asked to perform a gay wedding, she would refer the couple to another magistrate who did not object. Her only offense is publicly expressing her conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.
When she accepted pro bono legal counsel from the Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends religious liberty, the state agency even tried to sanction her further for accepting help from a group that they say “advocates for discrimination.” Meanwhile, gay citizens in the town have defended Judge Neely, saying that “it would be obscene and offensive to discipline Judge Neely for her statement … about her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
Apparently, for the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, three sitting Supreme Court justices are unfit to be judges of any kind in their state because of their dissents in Obergefell. Apparently, for the state of Wyoming, the love of fishing is a more legitimate principle than religious conviction. Apparently, subscribing to the basic tenets of Christianity is sufficient to expel you from the judiciary and fine you $40,000. And if your legal representation happens to disagree with that, it could cost you even more.
Danny Cannon works for the American Principles Project.