CASPER - A Pinedale magistrate’s constitutional rights to free speech and religious freedom do not allow her to refuse to marry gay couples, the Wyoming judicial ethics commission argues in a brief filed before the state Supreme Court.
The Wyoming Supreme Court will decide if Pinedale municipal judge and circuit court magistrate Ruth Neely should be removed from her position.
Neely’s constitutional rights do not “exempt her from complying with the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits such conduct by a judge and to which she swore her oath to abide by as a judicial officer for the State of Wyoming,” the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics wrote in a brief filed Wednesday.
The brief comes in response to a document filed by Neely in April in which she fought the judicial ethics commission’s recommendation to remove her from office. Neely is being represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.
Neely’s attorneys argued the Commission’s actions violate her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. They further asserted Neely has discretion when exercising her authority to perform marriages and that she could turn away a couple for any number of reasons.
The attorneys noted Neely has not been asked to perform a same-sex marriage, and that she has been suspended from her role as a magistrate and is not currently performing marriages.
The Commission, in its brief, asserts that Neely is refusing to follow the law by stating she will not marry gay couples.
“The Judge is ethically obligated both to uphold and apply the law, which in this instance is marriage equality for same-sex couples,” the brief states.
The Commission also contends Neely hurt the public’s confidence in judicial integrity and impartially by publicly announcing in a newspaper article that she would not marry gay couples.
“Judge Neely’s conduct diminishes public perception of Wyoming’s judicial system and diminishes the confidence of Wyoming people that their judges and justices will administer the law fairly and equally,” the Commission wrote.
The ethics group stated Neely’s statements that she would refuse to marry same-sex couples is a manifestation of bias and prejudice.
The Commission also references several decisions by state Supreme Courts, which concluded that a judge may not ethically decline to perform gay marriages.
In conclusion, the Commission argues that given Neely’s “unwillingness to even acknowledge the ethical implications, she cannot remain in office.”
Sara Burlingame, education and outreach coordinator for LGBT advocacy group Wyoming Equality, called the case “unnecessarily divisive.”
“We hate to see something that drives a wedge and creates an us/them dynamic,” Burlingame said.
But, she said, being a Christian is not an exemption from following the law.
“I agree that it is really important that we make sure that religious freedoms are protected and are understood and are part of our cultural and legal understanding,” Burlingame continued. “But where judge Neely went amiss was seeing that part of her professional civic life, particularly because she’s a judge. If you can’t follow the law in good conscious, you can’t do your job.”
The Commission began investigating Neely in January 2015. The investigation was prompted by statements made by Neely to a Pinedale Roundup reporter. After a federal judge in Casper struck down Wyoming’s gay marriage ban, Neely told the reporter that she would not be able to perform same-sex marriages.
“When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made,” she was quoted as saying.
On March 4, 2015, the Commission served Neely with a notice of commencement of formal proceedings, which is a disciplinary proceeding. The notice alleged she violated six separate canons, or rules of judicial conduct. The Commission alleges Neely acted with prejudice based on sexual orientation, refused to uphold the law and acted improperly.
During the proceedings, the Commission told Neely it wouldn’t prosecute if she would agree to resign both of her positions and never again seek judicial office in Wyoming, as well as admit wrongdoing, according to a brief by Neely’s attorneys filed with the Supreme Court. Neely declined to do so.
This February, the Commission asked Neely if she would publicly apologize and agree to perform same-sex marriages. Neely responded by saying she could not perform such marriages because doing so would violate her religious convictions.
Soon thereafter, the Commission filed a recommendation with the Wyoming Supreme Court asking the court to remove Neely from her positions as municipal court judge and circuit court magistrate.
Neely has been a municipal judge in Pinedale for more than 21 years and has performed marriages as a magistrate for more than a decade.
According to state statute, the Wyoming Supreme Court may suspend judicial officers or remove them from office or impose other discipline for violating the code of judicial conduct.