Wyoming Judge Who Refuses to Perform Gay Weddings Will Remain on Bench, Receives Public Censure

Wyoming's highest court will not remove a judge who refuses to perform same-sex marriages from her position, though they have given the magistrate a "public censure."

(Photo: Reuters/David McNew)A same-sex wedding cake topper is seen outside the East Los Angeles County Recorder's Office on Valentine's Day during a news event for National Freedom to Marry Week in Los Angeles, Calif., Feb. 14, 2012.

Municipal Judge and Circuit Court Magistrate Ruth Neely of Pinedale garnered headlines last year when a state agency recommended to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that she be removed from the bench over her publicly stated refusal to solemnize same-sex marriages.

In a decision released Tuesday, Wisconsin's highest court found Judge Neely guilty of violating ethical rules regarding impartiality and judicial integrity.

"[Neely] has taken the position that she is willing to do that for one class of people (opposite-sex couples), but not for another (same-sex couples), in spite of the fact that the law provides both classes are entitled to be married. That is not fair and impartial performance by any measure," stated the majority opinion.

"Our conclusion that Judge Neely's expressed refusal to conduct same-sex marriages violates the Code of Judicial Conduct is in line with every other tribunal that has considered the question."

When it came to disciplinary action, the state supreme court refused to honor the recommendation from the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics that Neely be removed from the bench.

"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," concluded the majority.

"[Neely's] misconduct was an isolated response to a quickly-changing legal landscape, one in which many judges have experienced similar turmoil."

In October of 2014, a federal judge struck down Wyoming's law banning gay marriage. That December, Neely was quoted in a local media outlet as saying that she refused to perform gay marriages.

"We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages but I will not be able to," explained Neely to the Sublette Examiner. "When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made."

In response to her comments, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics launched an investigation into Neely's statements to determine if she should be removed from office.

In February 2016, the Commission recommended that the Wisconsin Supreme Court remove Neely from her judicial position.

Neely was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. In a statement released Tuesday, ADF Senior Counsel Jim Campbell said that "Judge Neely looks forward to serving her community for many years to come."

"By affirming that Judge Neely may remain in her judicial positions, 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," stated Campbell.

Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter or Facebook