Freedom Under Fire in Wyoming
By Cheri Steinmetz, Wyoming State Rep. HD5
We are fortunate to live in America where our Rights to Free Speech and Religious Liberty are guaranteed by our Constitutions. Or ARE they? One evening of watching the news might lead us to question if the government understands what unalienable rights actually are? And when you see what is happening to Judge Ruth Neely of Pinedale you will wonder if we are living behind the iron curtain or in Wyoming. But before we get to that story, let’s review what our Constitutions say.
The United State Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We who live in Wyoming enjoy even broader protections as our Wyoming Constitution is one of the strongest in the Country on these issues.
The Wyoming Constitution states:
Article 1. Sec. 18. Religious liberty.
The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall be forever guaranteed in this state, and no person shall be rendered incompetent to hold any office of trust or profit, or to serve as a witness or juror, because of his opinion on any matter of religious belief whatever; …
Article 1. Sec. 20. Freedom of speech and press; libel; truth a defense.
Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right;…
Article 21. Sec. 25. Religious liberty.
Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of this state shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship.
The freedom to exercise these rights is under fire in Wyoming, rights that I took an oath of office to uphold.
Let me explain. Judge Ruth Neely has served honorably as the municipal judge in Pinedale, Wyoming, for more than 21 years. In that position, she hears all cases arising under the ordinances of Pinedale, which generally involve traffic and parking violations, animal control and similar matters.
Judge Neely has also served as a part-time circuit court magistrate. In that capacity, she has the authority to, among other things, administer oaths, issue subpoenas, issue search and arrest warrants, conduct bond hearings, and has the discretion to solemnize marriages. The law does NOT state that Judge Neely shall preform marriages, it states that she may. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-1-106).
Judge Neely’s life changed unexpectedly on December 5, 2014. While hanging Christmas lights at her home she received a phone call from an unidentified number. When Judge Neely returned the call, she reached a reporter with the Sublette Examiner, and he without warning asked her whether she was “excited” to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies now that they had become legal. Judge Neely replied 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. In December 2014, an article appeared in the Sublette Examiner quoting these statements by Judge Neely.
In March 2015, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics filed a complaint against her, alleging judicial misconduct under the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct and seeking her removal from both judicial positions, even though she is not permitted to perform marriages as a municipal judge. More specifically, the commission alleged that by merely communicating her religious beliefs about marriage and her inability to solemnize same-sex marriages, Judge Neely failed to follow the law and manifested bias or prejudice based on sexual orientation.
All of us should be deeply troubled by Judge Neely’s experience. First is the troubling idea that anyone could be removed from public office merely for expressing a belief that is declared ‘wrong’ by activists with access to governing bodies. This attempt to punish Judge Neely for her response to the reporter’s question violates her rights to the free exercise of religion and free speech under both the Wyoming and U.S. Constitutions.
Equally troubling is the idea that a Commission can assume authority to make and interpret law. The Wyoming Supreme Court will soon have the opportunity to rule on the Commission’s prosecution of Judge Neely. If the Supreme Court upholds the Commission’s recommendation, it will be affirming that boards, commissions and other bodies can grab authority and punish at will. But if the Supreme Court rejects the Commission’s recommendation, it will reaffirm that, in this country, speaking about one’s religious beliefs does not disqualify a person from holding public office.
Several past and present legislators have filed an Amicus Brief in support of Judge Neely. You also have an opportunity to be heard on this issue. If you stand in support of Judge Neely and the right of all citizens to freely speak and freely exercise their religious beliefs, these unalienable rights guaranteed by the U.S. and Wyoming Constitutions, speak up. To find more information about Judge Neely or support her by signing the online petition, visit WYPastors.net