Religious liberty at the Wyoming Supreme Court
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In a recent speech to Catholic lawyers Justice Alito predicted increasing battles over religious liberty in courts and Congress. One such battle came to an end on March 7, 2017 with a 3-2 opinion by the Wyoming Supreme Court in Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.
Two months after marriage had been redefined in Wyoming by the federal district court in Guzzo v. Mead, a local reporter asked Judge Ruth Neely, a municipal court judge and part-time circuit court magistrate, if she was “excited” to be able to perform same-sex marriages. Judge Neely responded, “I will not be able to do them. . . . We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages, but I will not be able to.” She went on to explain, “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made. I have not yet been asked to perform a same-sex marriage.” The judge’s comments were published in the Sublette Examiner, the local paper, on December 9, 2014.
The three-justice majority found that Judge Neely’s comments undermined public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary, evidenced an unwillingness to apply the law equally to all persons, and demonstrated bias and prejudice against homosexuals. The court publicly reprimanded her and ordered her to either entirely refrain from performing marriage ceremonies or perform ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation. In support of their conclusion the majority pointed to disciplinary actions taken against Ohio Judge Gary Tabor, and Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Two justices dissented, reasoning that Judge Neely’s statements were protected expression of religious beliefs. In their view discipline in this case violated state and federal constitutional prohibitions of a religious test for public office, as well as free speech and free exercise of religion protections.
Judge Neely was represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, and you can view the court’s opinion, the order from the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, as well many of the filings in the case on their website here.