If your religious views block you from performing a job, don’t do that job. That’s the Left’s refrain about religion and expressing it. If you’re religious, that’s fine, but it really needs to not impinge on others via your career. Keep your relationship with a Higher Power meekly to yourself.
The case of Judge Ruth Neely in Wyoming shows, in stark clarity, that it doesn’t actually matter whether religious people do their jobs well and keep their religion to themselves. It’s unacceptable to think and believe certain things, such as marriage being an institution between one man and one woman, and if you do that, forget about going into the legal profession.
The Wild West in America has a reputation of being hands-off and overall fairly conservative. Wyoming especially has that reputation. It’s the least-populated state, and goes strongly red in national elections. When looking for battleground cases over religious liberty it may seem more sensible to seek out the coasts, not a town in Wyoming of 1,977 people that is hours from what most of America considers an actual city. Yet it’s here that a small-town municipal judge is igniting controversies about the nature of employment as a person of faith.
The Astonishing Case of Ruth Neely
Ruth Neely has been a municipal judge for more than two decades. She hears cases about the types of things you normally see in small towns: traffic citations, parking tickets, animal control cases, alcohol infractions, and petty crimes. Marriage is not listed in the duties and responsibilities of this position. Neely also serves part-time as an unpaid court magistrate, and this position allow for solemnizing marriages. The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics (CJCE) has recommended that Neely be removed from both of her positions, including the one that doesn’t even perform marriages, simply because she has chosen to not solemnize gay marriages, a voluntary part of her unpaid job.
Neely has remained firm in her religious convictions. She’s an active member of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Pinedale, and bases her personal morality on that faith. Addressing the ethics committee’s concerns, Neely stated: “Homosexuality is a named sin in the Bible, as are drunkenness, thievery, lying, and the like. I can no more officiate at a same-sex wedding than I can buy beer for the alcoholic.”
Her faith has not interfered with any requirements of either judicial position she fills, and no marriages have been refused or sent elsewhere because of her beliefs. Jonathan Lange, a pastor in Wyoming and part of the Wyoming Pastor’s Network, describes another troubling part of this situation: “It was only because she had accepted a second, part-time job as circuit court magistrate that this question had any relevance at all. In that unpaid position, she was authorized, but not obligated, to solemnize marriages.” Neely is not paid as a judge in any position that performs wedding recognitions.
No Job For You
Neely’s legal support is fighting to not only keep her in her positions, but also to protect her ability to fill jobs that avoid the marriage issue completely: The Wyoming commission “claims that because Judge Neely’s religious beliefs prevent her from solemnizing same-sex marriage, she cannot be a judge in Wyoming, even in a position that does not have authority to perform marriages.” Since legal decisions at this level are not about one person or situation, this touches the lives (and careers) of all people who have religious beliefs about certain actions.
The rapid action against Neely should give us all pause. Should a person be hired or fired based on criteria that have nothing to do with the actual functions of the position? Some religious beliefs make performing job functions difficult: Pacifists in positions that require physical force. Christian Scientists in positions that deal with blood transfusions. Muslims in places that process pork. Are we ready to say that the legal field, especially at the judiciary level, is totally out of bounds for all people with traditional views on marriage? This would shut out faithful adherents to all the world’s major religions.
Lange touches on the difference between sins and laws, and how it affects Christians: “Let’s think about this for a minute. Note, first, that the idea of ‘sin’ is not a legal category. It is a theological category. Sins are against God. Crimes are against the government. For centuries, America has known that something may be a sin without being illegal. Drunkenness, adultery, greed and blasphemy immediately come to mind. This is the very essence of the church-state distinction. Every judge in America has been perfectly capable of applying the law equitably and fairly to people who engage in all kinds of sins without confusing sins with illegal activity. But now the CJCE wants Wyoming to believe that one sin, and one sin only, can no longer be called ‘sin’ without threatening the entire judicial system.”
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has handled cases about religion and employment, especially about making space for religion to change employment expectations. As a judge, however, Neely has been subjected to a different standard, with the commission claiming that, “Judges do not enjoy the same freedom to proselytize their religious beliefs as ordinary citizens.”
Holding personal beliefs, especially those that don’t affect job duties, isn’t proselytizing. Proselytizing is trying to convert people, not merely holding certain religious beliefs. The commission has even said speaking to a newspaper reporter should disqualify Neely from public service, even public service not related to any type of weddings.
This case is bigger than Neely. It’s bigger than Wyoming. Personal opinions and morality do not preclude an unbiased enforcement of the law. Sin covers a broader swath of human behavior than what will ever be illegal, and refusing employment and whole professions to people because of their deeply held religious convictions (that do not impede their duties!) bars qualified and needed professionals from whole fields of employment.
Removing Neely would be an egregious transgression against personal and religious freedoms, and the ethics committee has overstepped and threatened all of us. As George Orwell wisely said, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” It’s Neely’s turn to have her mind torn to pieces, but it won’t end with her.