The Chipping Away of Religious Liberty

The Chipping Away of Religious Liberty

by Diane Robertson

Religious freedom is being chipped away at one small bit at a time. As a result, the freedom in which people had to behave and speak has been changing.

Years ago, private business owners could make their religion part of their business and the community respected that. Public officials and school employees had the same privilege. Freedom to speak and to act according to one’s conscience was respected.

Those days are gone. Between a series of lawsuits and a multitude of non-discrimination laws, everyone’s religious speech and actions have been regulated.

Recently a Wyoming judge, Judge Ruth Neely, partially lost a lawsuit regarding her religious rights. She worked both as a municipal judge and a magistrate. Municipal judges do not perform marriages, but magistrates do.

In 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage, Judge Neely was asked if she was excited to perform same sex marriages. She responded, “I will not be able to do them… We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages, but I will not be able to.” She went on to explain, “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made. I have not yet been asked to perform a same-sex marriage.”

Her comments were published. The following year, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics filed a complaint against her, alleging judicial misconduct and seeking her removal. Judge Neeley appealed her case to the state supreme court.

This month, the Wyoming Supreme Court, in a 3 to 2 ruling, determined that Judge Neeley’s comments undermined public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. She was publicly reprimanded and ordered to perform all marriages or no marriages.

The two dissenting judges stated that discipline in this case was not warranted because Judge Neely’s statements were protected expression of religious beliefs.

While a little more religious freedom was chipped away, in some ways the ruling was a compromise. Judge Neeley was not removed from her public offices. She maintained a little freedom in that she can continue on as a municipal judge, but if she will not perform all marriages, she cannot be a judicial magistrate. Her right to speak her mind and declare her religious beliefs were infringed upon but not completely removed.

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