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Wyoming Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on gay-marriage dispute

Aug 17, 2016 By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE (AP) -- The Wyoming Supreme Court must decide whether to remove from office a Pinedale judge who says her religious beliefs would prevent her from presiding over same-sex marriages.

The court heard arguments Wednesday on Judge Ruth Neely's appeal of a removal recommendation from the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics. The court will issue a written opinion later.

Neely, who's not a lawyer, is a municipal judge in Pinedale and has been suspended from her position as a circuit court magistrate in Sublette County.

The ethics commission investigated Neely after she told a reporter in 2014 that she wouldn't preside over same-sex marriages. Her lawyers said no same-sex couples have asked her to perform their marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples nationwide may marry.

Lawyer James Campbell of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona religious advocacy law firm, spoke for Neely at Wednesday's hearing. He argued that removing her from office would violate her constitutional rights.

"This case presents significant First Amendment issues," Campbell told the five judges of the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Campbell said Neely only had expressed her opinion about the institution of marriage, and hadn't done anything to show bias or prejudice against any individual. "In 21 years on the bench, Judge Neely has never faced allegations that she's been unfair to anyone," he said.

Many prominent judges as well as major world religions share Neely's opposition to same-sex marriage, Campbell said.

Lawyer Patrick Dixon, representing the ethics commission, said Neely's case amounted to, "a low point and a black mark in the history of the judiciary in Wyoming."

Dixon argued that the state's judicial code of conduct prohibits all judges -- from magistrates through supreme court justices -- from showing through their words or actions bias against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or other factors.

While Dixon argued that Neely's religious beliefs are discriminatory, he said the commission wasn't targeting her because of those beliefs. Rather, he said the commission recommended removing her because her public statement that she couldn't preside over same-sex marriages violates the judicial code of conduct.

Neely's case has similarities to the legal action in Kentucky against clerk Kim Davis.

A conservative Christian, Davis was jailed briefly last year after she refused to allow her office to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Her case sparked a national debate over the religious freedom of civil servants versus the civil rights of same-sex couples before she ultimately agreed to alter the licenses to remove her name and title.

In Neely's case, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected attempts from a group of current and former Wyoming lawmakers as well as national religious organizations to file "friend of the court" briefs in support of Neely.

Neely and Campbell declined comment after the court hearing.

"We have judicial ethics and standards for a reason," said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation and a former Wyoming resident.

"It's meant to assure the public that everyone that sits on the bench is impartial, and handles cases on their merits, and on the facts and not on any other basis," he said. "For (Neely) to make the statement that a big chunk of the public is simply not welcome to exercise their constitutional rights in her courtroom flies in the face of everyone's First Amendment protection that we don't have an official state religion."

The foundation is named after the University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in 1998.

His slaying became a rallying cry in the gay rights movement and a federal hate crimes law now bears his name.

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