Who is Judge Ruth Neely from Pinedale, Wyoming?
Actually, you should know and you’d better care.
Let me explain why through an analogy. Let’s say you live in a repressive Middle Eastern country where homosexual beliefs can lead to arrest, and homosexual behavior can result in execution. You have friends or family you know to be homosexual. You are not homosexual yourself. You don’t approve of their inclinations or behavior. But you value them as fellow imperfect human beings whose imperfections are merely different than your own. An acquaintance finds out about your views and asks why you would hold such views or have such scandalous associations. He feels obligated, by law or for fear of discovery, to report you to authorities. These authorities will not tolerate dissent. They move against you. They expose you publicly. You lose your job. Neighbors shun you out of loathing, or if they quietly agree with you, out of fear of being associated with a pariah. Your family receives threats. Your livelihood and reputation are destroyed. Maybe you lose your freedom.
This hypothetical situation in a Muslim country is not so fanciful, is it? We know enough these days about countries where similar persecutions occur daily. Who can forget the television images showing men being thrown off tall buildings, their hands tied behind their backs? Their crimes? Being homosexual. Nobody in these countries who feels for these people dares to speak out. No rights exist in law to hold differing opinions.
We don’t live in a terrible place like this, do we? In our country, any of us may freely express our views on any matter. We may support or oppose homosexuality. We may have, or choose not to have, homosexual friends. We may associate, or not associate, in any way we wish with homosexuals or anyone else.
Here’s where we come back to Judge Neely. She has served 21 years as a municipal judge and part-time magistrate in Pinedale. In late 2014, after a federal ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in Wyoming, a reporter asked whether she would marry a same-sex couple in her capacity as magistrate. She said her religious convictions define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and she could not in good conscience preside over such a marriage.
State law gives a magistrate full discretion to perform or not perform any marriage ceremony. More important, the Wyoming Constitution states that no official may be removed from office for holding any religious opinion. In another section, it declares a right against molestation for anyone’s religious views or worship. The US Constitution similarly protects individuals against punishment for one’s religious beliefs.
Pinedale is a tiny Wyoming town (pop. 2,030) that Judge Neely has served for over 20 years. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Judge Neely:
Ignoring the pleas of LGBT citizens in the small town of Pinedale, Wyoming, a state agency is demanding that – after over 20 years of sterling service – Judge Ruth Neely be banned for life from the judiciary and pay up to $40,000 in fines merely for stating that her faith prevents her from personally performing same-sex weddings. Even though small-town magistrates like Judge Neely aren’t required or even paid by the state to perform weddings, the state agency concluded that Judge Neely “manifested a bias” and is therefore permanently unfit to serve as a judge.
Judge Neely’s comment to the reporter set in motion a series of news articles culminating in an ethics complaint against her by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.
This would be the first time in the country that a judge was removed from office because of her religious beliefs about marriage.
In a response to the removal petition, Neely’s lawyers stated in a court filing last month that removing her would violate her rights. They quoted a provision of the Wyoming Constitution that prohibits the state from finding a person incompetent to hold public office, “because of his opinion on any matter of religious belief whatever.”
Despite clear legal and constitutional protections, the Commission found her statement unacceptable and ruled that she cannot hold office.
“For the last two years, Rep. Nathan Winters and myself have introduced legislation (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 and Government Non-Discrimination Act in 2016) to avert the potential of Wyoming citizens being scrutinized for the expression of their religious beliefs,” Steinmetz said in an interview with the Telegram. “Unfortunately, the legislation failed.”
Judge Neely appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which hears arguments in Cheyenne on August 17.
Let’s be clear: in her role as a municipal judge, Neely cannot solemnize weddings because she lacks the legal authority. Her court handles things like traffic fines and public drunkenness.
From start to finish, the case against Neely was a setup: Nobody has asked Judge Neely to perform a same-sex marriage.
What is at stake for you and me in the outcome of the Neely case? Nothing less than the principle that we can freely express and live by our beliefs, no matter what others think.
Suffering injustice and persecution themselves, the founders of this country recognized that each person has rights which adhere to us by virtue of being human, rights which no person or government may deny us. I do not approve of homosexuality, but I would never claim the right to deny a homosexual freedom of belief in his or her own life. I cannot justly force that person or any person to renounce his beliefs or lose his job. Equally, no person with beliefs opposite mine has the right to persecute me for my beliefs.
Who among us would agree that the tyranny we see in Muslim countries is right? Tyranny violates fundamental rights which each human being is born with, rights that tower above anything man made.
Fellow Wyoming citizens who persecute Judge Neely for her beliefs would be persecuted (or worse) for theirs in the Middle East. Living in our safe homes here, not one of us would approve such persecution. If we were unfortunate enough to live in such a hellhole, we would disapprove in silence if we did not have the courage to face prison or death for speaking out.
I respect the right of others to disagree with my religious or moral beliefs. To decide not to associate with me because of my opinions. To stay away from me because of my circle of friends. I have the same rights with regard to them. Our rights are equal, and they are fundamental to our humanity.
Let’s not become another Iran. We can live tolerantly with each other. We need not harness the fearsome power of government to bludgeon those who disagree with us on moral and religious matters.
Stop the persecution of Judge Neely. I don’t want to be next. Neither do you.