Judge Neely will remain on bench despite censure

Judge Ruth Neely (Courtesy of the Town of Pinedale, Wyo.)

By Roger Drinnon

Judge Ruth Neely — under fire since 2014 for expressing her faith-based beliefs on marriage — will remain a municipal judge despite a censure by the Wyoming Supreme Court in a ruling announced March 7.

Neely is a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation in Pinedale, Wyo.

With its 3-2 decision, the state supreme court censured Neely for three of four ethics violations filed by the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics. Despite the formal public admonishment, the ruling acknowledges that she did not violate the law by expressing a faith-based marriage view.

The ruling states, “We decline to remove Judge Neely from her position as a municipal court judge; such a punishment would ‘unnecessarily circumscribe protected expression,’ and we are mindful of our goal to narrowly tailor the remedy. We conclude that Judge Ruth Neely shall receive a public censure; Judge Neely shall either perform no marriage ceremonies or she shall perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.”

Read the ruling. 

Neely is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF),  a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the rights of people to live freely according to their faith.

“By affirming that Judge Neely may remain in her judicial position, the Wyoming Supreme Court has recognized that her honorable beliefs about marriage do not disqualify her from serving her community as a judge, which she has done with distinction for more than two decades,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jim Campbell. “The court rejected the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics’ recommendation that Judge Neely be removed from office for expressing her belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”

Vocation under the cross

It all began in 2014 when Neely indicated to a local news reporter that her judiciary duties do not involve solemnizing marriages and that she holds the biblical view of marriage as between one man and one woman.

“In December 2014,” ADF’s publicized case summary notes, “a reporter in Pinedale who suspected that Judge Neely’s religious beliefs prevented her from serving as a celebrant for same-sex marriages asked her whether she was ‘excited’ to perform same-sex weddings. A few days later, an article appeared in the Sublette Examiner quoting Judge Neely as saying that, because of her religious beliefs, she would ‘not be able to do’ same-sex marriages and that she had not ‘been asked to perform’ one.”

Not long after the article was published, state officials began an investigation, followed by the proceedings to remove Neely from her vocation as a local judge. She has served in Pinedale as a municipal judge for more than 21 years and as part-time circuit court magistrate there for over 14 years. The Synod joined in an amicus brief in defense of Neely last year.

Reporter Online carried a story about these developments last May.

Legal ‘Never Never Land’

The case brings to light public concerns over whether LGBT advocacy is becoming a litmus test for those seeking to hold public office or obtain professional licensing and certifications for a variety of other vocations as well as for the accreditation of academic institutions.

Also a concern for faith communities is a previous statement made by a member of the state’s commission seeking to remove Neely. In a transcript of hearings held in December 2015, one of the state attorneys on the commission is quoted saying the LCMS position on marriage is “repugnant.”

“We are in legal Never Never Land — uncharted territory within a society and a legal system increasingly averse to Christians living faithfully in their vocations,” wrote LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison in his March 10 letter responding to the latest ruling. “Thank you, Judge Neely, for the civil and Christian conviction to stand in the face of tyranny.”

The following related resources are available:

Roger Drinnon (roger.drinnon@lcms.org) is director of Editorial Services and Media Relations for LCMS Communications.

Posted March 13, 2017 / Updated March 16, 2017

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The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Content is prepared by LCMS Communications.

3 Responses to Judge Neely will remain on bench despite censure

  1. Carl Vehse March 13, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    In the Wyoming Supreme Court case of Judge Ruth Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, the majority (3-2) opinion (Justices Kate M. Fox, James Burke and William U. Hill) is on pp. 1-32.

    The dissenting opinion of Justices Keith G. Kautz and Michael K. Davis can be found on pp. 33-35. Kautz and David state in ¶78:

    “Contrary to the position asserted by the majority opinion, this case is about religious beliefs and same sex marriage. The issues considered here determine whether there is a religious test for who may serve as a judge in Wyoming. They consider whether a judge may be precluded from one of the functions of office not for her actions, but for her statements about her religious views.”

  2. michelle coyle March 14, 2017 at 5:19 am #

    I am very glad that I found this face book page. Reading the 58 page decision presents both sides and allows for informed insight to the changing landscape we are all living through.

  3. Carl Vehse March 14, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

    The dissenting minority opinion of Justices Kautz and Davis noted in the listed paragraphs:

    [¶97]: Wyoming judges may or may not perform weddings without regard to the reason for their decision.

    [¶98]: Simply put, the law does not require any Wyoming judge, including part-time magistrate Neely, to perform any marriage ceremony. The applicable law only requires that state officials may not “deny marriage to same-sex couples.”

    [¶99]: The evidence does not indicate that Judge Neely ever denied a same sex couple marriage.

    [¶114]: As discussed above, no judge in Wyoming has a duty to perform any particular marriage. Because no couple seeking marriage has a right in Wyoming to insist that a particular judge perform the ceremony, it is not “unfair” or “partial” for Judge Neely to arrange for some other judge to officiate for a same sex couple… The majority position creates a requirement that does not exist in Wyoming—that judges who perform some marriages must perform all marriages.

    [¶115]: If the law, or Judge Neely’s job description, required her to perform every marriage when requested, and if a same sex couple actually demanded that she perform their marriage ceremony, and if Judge Neely then denied them a civil marriage ceremony, then she may have violated Rule 2.2. However, none of those facts exist here.

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