Wyoming town tells court: Let our judge serve! Respected judge faces lifetime ban, fines for religious beliefs
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Local officials in the quiet cattle town of Pinedale, Wyoming wrote yesterday to their own Supreme Court in support of their beloved magistrate judge. A state agency is threatening Judge Ruth Neely with an unprecedented lifetime ban from public office and $40,000 in fines merely for expressing her religious views on marriage to a British reporter, who unexpectedly called for an interview on same-sex marriage while she was hanging up her Christmas lights. The widely respected judge has received support from her neighbors as well as a local LGBT couple who views the threats against her as “obscene.”
“State officials called her faith ‘repugnant’ and said this is why they want to strip her of her job and permanently ban her from public office. But in America there is nothing repugnant about expressing your faith — even if it is unpopular with state officials. This is a right guaranteed by our First Amendment and by Wyoming’s own constitution.” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for Becket, which also submitted an amicus brief defending Judge Neely. “What is truly repugnant is that this agency is attempting to destroy Judge Neely’s life. Judges, like all government officials, are graded on their ability to do the job, not on their religious beliefs.”
The case is the first of its kind in the nation: even though small-town magistrates like Judge Ruth Neely aren’t required or even paid by the state to perform weddings, a Wyoming agency is demanding her firing because it disagrees with her religious beliefs. In fact, because Pinedale is so small—it still holds one of the nation’s oldest cattle drives and has about ten times more wildlife than residents—Judge Neely wears two judicial hats, neither of which requires her to perform weddings at all. One of the positions is not even authorized to perform any weddings, and the other one allows officials to decline to perform weddings for many reasons—such as a desire to go fishing instead.
In addition to the local officials, the judge is also supported by a diverse coalition of African-American and Hispanic ministries; numerous judges, legislators, and law professors (including a judicial ethics expert); local and national churches; and Becket. The groups filed five amicus briefs, though the Supreme Court chose not to accept all of them, joining Pinedale LGBT citizens to express strong support for the judge. Their statements of support include:
- Pinedale LGBT citizens: “Ruth Neely is one of the best people I have ever met….Though I do not share her beliefs regarding marriage, I have no doubt whatsoever that Ruth is fair and impartial as a judge. …It would be obscene and offensive to discipline Judge Neely for her statement…about her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
- African-American and Hispanic ministries: Speaking on behalf of “more than 70,000 African American and Hispanic churches, and tens of millions of African Americans and Hispanic Americans, throughout the United States,” it “denounc[es] the spurious notion that understanding marriage to be a union between a man and a woman is akin to holding racist views on marriage.”
- Law professors and retired judges: “If the government has the power to remove a judge in this case, no judge’s career is safe because all judges hold beliefs on contentious issues.”
- National and local churches: “[T]he Commission’s decision effectively declares that millions of adherents of…traditional faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – are unfit to hold certain public offices in Wyoming….[That conclusion] is astonishing and unconvincing. There is no conflict between Judge Neely’s traditional religious beliefs and her ability to serve as an effective – indeed, exemplary – judge in the State of Wyoming.”
- Wyoming legislators: “The people who drafted and ratified our State Constitution sought to ensure that no one would be excluded from public office on account of their religious beliefs. Despite this, [a Wyoming agency] is attempting to remove Judge Neely form office because of her religious beliefs about marriage…[S]uch religion-based exclusions from public office [should] not occur in the Equality State.”
- Becket: “If this Court faithfully applies the Wyoming Constitution, the First Amendment, and Obergefell, everyone can win: Same-sex couples can have full access to the legal institution of marriage, and religious individuals can remain in public office if they hold a traditional religious view of marriage. There is room enough in our pluralistic democracy for both sides to live according to their views of sex, marriage, and religion.”
All of the amicus briefs, along with the entire record for the case, are available here. Judge Neely is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at email@example.com or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).