Neely v. Wyoming Ethics

The story of a small-town, Wyoming judge raises a big question: Is there room in our society for people to live according to different views of marriage?

Ruth Neely is a municipal judge and part-time circuit court magistrate from Pinedale, Wyoming. Shortly after Wyoming legalized same-sex marriage, a local reporter published an article stating that Judge Neely would be unable to perform same-sex weddings because of her religious beliefs. Based on the article, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics launched an unprecedented investigation against her.

Even though Wyoming law does not require (or pay) judges to perform weddings at all, and she has never been asked to solemnize a same-sex wedding, and there are several other magistrates who would be happy to do so, the Commission recommended that Judge Neely be stripped of all her judicial duties and fined up to $40,000 because of her beliefs. Town residents, including members of the LGBT community, were incredulous. In Pinedale, Judge Neely is known as an exemplary, caring judge who has spent 21 years treating everyone fairly.

Judge Neely was forced to defend her religious beliefs in the Wyoming Supreme Court, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. In May 2016, Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that it would violate the Wyoming and federal constitutions to penalize Judge Neely because of her religious beliefs. In March 2017, the Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously rejected the government’s request for extreme sanctions, allowing Judge Neely to keep both of her judicial positions. But a bare majority of the Court, in a 3-2 vote, ruled that she cannot continue performing any marriage ceremonies unless she’s willing to violate her faith by personally performing same-sex ceremonies. The dissenting justices defended Judge Neely and got the big question right: “In our pluralistic society, the law should not be used to coerce ideological conformity. Rather, on deeply contested moral issues, the law should ‘create a society in which both sides can live their own values.’”

Becket stands ready to defend others like Judge Neely, who, despite government pressure to conform, courageously choose to follow their conscience.

Wyoming Sawmills Inc. v. United States Forest Service

Medicine Wheel is a sacred prehistoric stone circle about 80 feet in diameter that was constructed by the aboriginal peoples of North America.  Although the age of the structure is unknown, archaeological evidence indicates that human presence in the area goes back for 7,500 years or more.

Medicine Wheel remains a site of religious and cultural importance to the various Native American tribes in the region, who have gathered there for religious and other purposes for centuries.

In 1996, the Forest Service formulated a Historic Preservation Plan (“HPP”) to preserve the Medicine Wheel landmark and other valuable historic sites in the vicinity and make them accessible to both Native Americans who regard the sites as a sacred part of their culture and to the many interested visitors who travel to the mountain each year.

However, a private sawmill corporation wanting to use the property for commercial purposes, sued the forest Service over the Historic Preservation Plan claiming the accommodation for religious exercise of Native American faiths violated the Establishment Clause.  The sawmill lost at the district court level, then appealed the case to the 10th Circuit.

Enter Becket. Bringing together a vast coalition of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organization, Becket filed an amicus brief emphasized that it is constitutional—even laudatory—for government to accommodate the religious practices of its people. Additionally, that this is a legitimate secular purpose of civil government.

The 10th Circuit ruled for protecting the sacred Indian sites, dismissing the sawmills claims of First Amendment violations.

The U.S. Forest Service was represented by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd and the Association on American Indian Affairs defended Medicine Wheel.

*Photo  Credit: National Register of Historic Places

Bear Lodge Multiple Use Assocation v. Babbitt and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Several Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux of Wyoming, had worked with the National Park Service to make arrangements to practice their ancient Lakota rituals undisturbed every June on sacred grounds at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The area also happens to be quite popular for rock climbers and visitors, so the Park Service implemented a sensible plan that discouraged rock climbing during June, posted signs marking the sacred ground, and started a cultural education program that informed visitors of Native American culture and religion.

But a group of climbing guides sued the Park Service, arguing that the efforts unconstitutionally made the Lakota religion an official state religion in Wyoming. Becket, along with a group of civil liberty and religious organizations, fought back with an amicus brief on behalf of the tribe. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, dismissed the case, finding that the climbers had failed to identify a personal injury and consequently had no standing to bring the case.

Cases like this are important because it is admirable when governments make a conscientious effort to protect religious minorities. Yet the same arguments used by the climbers, while seemingly absurd, are used to challenge studying religious texts in high school history or English classes, or exhibiting religious elements in local cultural festivals and displays. But the religious aspects in our culture and history are what make our society great.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (Steven Emery, Thomas J. Van Norman), the Indian Law Resource Center and the Law Office of John Schumacher, LLC represented the tribes.