Wyoming judge facing ouster over stance on same-sex marriage

AP News
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Posted: May 09, 2016 8:37 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Some current and former Wyoming lawmakers as well as national religious groups are supporting a municipal judge who faces a dismissal petition before the Wyoming Supreme Court for saying she would not preside over same-sex marriages.

The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics is recommending the court remove Municipal Judge and Circuit Court Magistrate Ruth Neely of Pinedale. The commission started investigating Neely after she told a reporter in 2014 she would not perform same-sex marriages because of her religious beliefs.

Attempts to reach Neely and her attorneys, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona religious advocacy law firm, were not successful Monday.

Neely is fighting removal, arguing she has a constitutional right to voice her opinion. Her lawyers have said no same-sex couples have asked her to preside over their weddings.

In a similar case, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, a born-again Christian, was jailed briefly last year after she refused to allow her office to issue marriage licenses, igniting a national debate over religious freedom and civil rights. Davis ultimately altered the licenses to remove her name and title.

In a response to the removal petition, Neely's lawyers stated in a court filing last month that removing her would violate her rights. They quoted a provision of the Wyoming Constitution which prohibits the state from finding a person incompetent to hold public office, "because of his opinion on any matter of religious belief whatever."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in a 5-to-4 decision that same-sex couples nationwide may marry.

"By the commission's logic, jurists like Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., of the United States Supreme Court could not sit on the bench in Wyoming," Neely's lawyers stated. "Not only have they written opinions explaining their view that the U.S. Constitution does not include a right to same-sex marriage, but also they (like Judge Neely) ascribe to a religious tradition that precludes them from celebrating a same-sex marriage."

A coalition of dozens of current and former Wyoming state lawmakers filed a petition with the state supreme court on Monday supporting Neely's position.

"For me, it's a free speech issue," said Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, one of the lawmakers supporting Neely and a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the Wyoming Legislature. "A judge shouldn't be removed for something that she said outside of her duties as a judge."

Jack Edwards, an Etna, Wyoming, lawyer, represents a coalition of African American and Hispanic groups, including the National Hispanic Leadership Conference and the National Black Church Initiative, that also seeks to file a brief with the state supreme court supporting Neely.

"The question is whether or not people who serve in public capacities, including the judiciary, can hold beliefs that are contrary to the orders of the United States Supreme Court," Edwards said.

Other groups seeking to support Neely include a group of legal scholars and judges and officials of the Town of Pinedale.

Jason Marsden is executive director of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation and a former Wyoming resident. The foundation is named after the University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in 1998. His slaying became a rallying cry in the gay rights movement and a federal hate crimes law now bears his name.

"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," Marsden said. "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."