The ability of people to express opinions in line with their religious beliefs was dealt another serious blow this month. Ruth Neely, the Wyoming judge who told a reporter she couldn’t perform same-sex marriages although that is not part of her job requirements, was censured by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Since 1994 Neely has served as a municipal court judge in Pinedale, Wyoming. Since 2001, she has also served as a part-time magistrate, and in that position she voluntarily solemnizes marriages. She’s presided over more than 100 weddings so far. She has never been asked to perform a same-sex marriage, and her stance only came to light after a reporter sought her out and questioned her on her beliefs shortly after the Supreme Court required all states to approve gay marriages.
Neely is well-regarded in Pinedale, and that respect includes at least one member of the local gay community, as cited by the court’s decision. During the inquiry by the ethics committee, Neely wrote: “I cannot knowingly be complicit in another’s sin. Does that mean I cannot be impartial on the bench when that homosexual or habitual liar or thief comes before me with a speeding ticket? Or the alcoholic appears before me for yet another charge of public intoxication? No. Firmly, no. I have been the municipal court judge for the Town of Pinedale for over 20 years; and there has not been one claim of bias or prejudice made by anyone who has come before me. Not the homosexual, not the alcoholic, not the liar, not the thief. Not one.”
The 3-2 decision found Neely had undermined public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary, but they didn’t remove her from the bench. Instead, “Judge Neely shall either perform no marriage ceremonies or she shall perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation,” wrote Justice Kate Fox.
Her Religious Beliefs Aren’t The Issue, Just the Reason
The majority opinion continued, “This case is also not about imposing a religious test on judges. Rather, it is about maintaining the public’s faith in an independent and impartial judiciary that conducts its judicial functions according to the rule of law, independent of outside influences, including religion, and without regard to whether a law is popular or unpopular.”
The court repeatedly stresses that Neely’s religious beliefs aren’t the issue, but rather her conduct as a judge. Yet it’s vital to reiterate that not a single gay couple has been unable to wed in Pinedale, and that the tiny town has at least one magistrate Neely said would perform a same-sex marriage if necessary. She has never refused to marry any same-sex couple, but simply answered honestly to a reporter that personally performing such a wedding would violate her religious beliefs. Her beliefs in the biblical definition of marriage have not previously interfered with her work as a judge or magistrate, yet they’re the reason that she has been censured.
It is important that the judiciary is fair, and that the law is fairly and impartially applied, the court decision says: “The importance of public confidence in the integrity of judges stems from the place of the judiciary in the government. Unlike the executive or the legislature, the judiciary ‘has no influence over either the sword or the purse; . . . neither force nor will but merely judgment.’” Neely doesn’t believe her faith makes her impartial, but since she would hypothetically marry heterosexual couples and not homosexual ones the court has disagreed. Even though they didn’t remove her from either her judge or magistrate positions, they noted that local authorities might.
So Are Orthodox Christians Banned from Law Now?
The most important question here is whether individuals with sincerely held beliefs will be able to continue to hold public service positions and government jobs. Neely’s beliefs preclude her from being able to wed same-sex couples, but they haven’t barred her from evenly and fairly presiding over the cases that have come before her for decades. It’s impossible for people to be without opinions and morality derived from personal experiences and faith systems, but it is possible for people of faith to be fair and impartial.
The judgement against Neely raises questions about how citizens should handle enforcement of laws they believe are unjust. Where does this leave law enforcement officials who don’t agree with immigration laws, for example, or military members like chaplains who refer members of other religions to another chaplain instead of including them in their own religious rites? Is there a difference between expecting a pro-life firefighter to save an abortion clinic and not let it burn down, and expecting a judge to perform a same-sex marriage?
Neely’s job as magistrate isn’t over emergency or life and death matters, where the time to find a worker without objections becomes a loss of life or property. The court, in placing her job on an equal field with police officers, doctors, and firefighters, lacks common sense and reasonableness. Neely hasn’t proposed harsher punishments for gay lawbreakers, or asked for them to not be married at all by other available public officials, but she has professed that she, personally, can’t perform a hypothetical wedding.
“Wyoming law does not require any judge or magistrate to perform any particular marriage, and couples seeking to be married have no right to insist on a particular official as the officiant of their wedding,” Justice Keith Kautz noted in the dissent that Justice Michael Davis joined.
Americans have to examine what careers are open to those with religious beliefs and what aren’t, and barring people from jobs they do fairly and are well-qualified for leaves us fewer conscientious and qualified workers. It also heightens the growing imbalances between faithful Christians and secular American citizens with growing preferences for the latter based solely on religious beliefs.