Defending that LCMS judge who opposes gay marriage

Defending that LCMS judge who opposes gay marriage August 29, 2016

As we’ve blogged about, Municipal Judge Ruth Neely of Pinedale, Wyoming–a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod–is in trouble for telling a reporter that she wouldn’t be able to perform a gay marriage.  Never mind that no one has asked her to, and that her job description doesn’t require her to perform any marriages whatsoever.  The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics wants to remove her from office.

Rev. Jonathan Lange, an LCMS pastor in Wyoming, has written a quite brilliant op-ed piece on the subject for the Wyoming News.  He takes up the charges that her religious beliefs demonstrate disqualifying bias and that she was speaking against the law of the land.  In doing so, he develops a useful distinction between “sin” and “law,” showing also how her accusers would be brought down by the same charges.

After the jump, I excerpt and link both Rev. Lange’s column and a response to the case and to the column by Holly Scheer in The Federalist.

Today, [August 17] the Wyoming Supreme Court will hear a case that has huge implications for each and every one of us.

The case involves Judge Ruth Neely, who has served with distinction for 21 years as the municipal judge in Pinedale. Since municipalities have no authority either to issue a license or solemnize a marriage, you would think that she’s unaffected by all the hoopla over same-sex marriage.

But you would be mistaken. In a chillingly reasoned opinion, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics wants to remove her from her job and disqualify her for service anywhere in the Wyoming judiciary.

The story began on a cold Saturday morning in December 2014. Shortly after the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declared Wyoming marriage statutes unconstitutional, a reporter from the Sublette Examiner called Mrs. Neely to ask if she was “excited” to perform same-sex marriage. . . .

She gave a perfectly reasonable reply. She said if she were ever asked (she never has been) she would help the couple find someone to do the job. However, she would “not be able to do” it herself.

Based on this solitary exchange, about a hypothetical question, the CJCE has been waging what they call a “holy war” against her for more than a year. They are not content to send her a letter clarifying what she should have done, nor even a letter of reprimand. Instead, they are leveling the greatest possible punishment allowable by law. . . .

One central allegation against Judge Neely is the charge of bias. The CJCE claims that merely by publicly affirming the biblical teaching on homosexual acts, she immediately and irrevocably made it impossible to judge fairly or impartially in any matter whatsoever.

They make much of a private letter in which she discussed a number of biblically named sins. The CJCE was so shocked that she would agree with the Bible that her religion (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) was called “repugnant” in open court.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Note, first, that the idea of “sin” is not a legal category. It is a theological category. Sins are against God. Crimes are against the government.

For centuries, America has known that something may be a sin without being illegal. Drunkenness, adultery, greed and blasphemy immediately come to mind. This is the very essence of the church/state distinction.

Every judge in America has been perfectly capable of applying the law equitably and fairly to people who engage in all kinds of sins without confusing sins with illegal activity. But now the CJCE wants Wyoming to believe that one sin, and one sin only, can no longer be called “sin” without threatening the entire judicial system.

If this reasoning is true, then it should apply to every judge who thinks something is a sin the government has declared legal. Do you believe that drunkenness is a sin? Well, since there’s no law against it, you’re fired! You think that adultery is a sin? You cannot be a judge anywhere in Wyoming. Who will be left to sit on the bench? Only those who have no moral compass beyond the letter of the law.

A second major point the CJCE makes is that Judge Neely, “by announcing her position against marriage equality,” openly spoke against the law of the land. Here is another curious position.

Does the CJCE really mean to say that any public opposition to any law should immediately disqualify a judge from office?

The Commission might want to think that one through a bit more.

The fact of the matter is that prior to Oct. 6, 2014, same-sex marriage was against the law of the land. If the Commission is right, any and every judge who spoke in favor of same-sex marriage prior to then should have been immediately removed from the bench.

This would be rather awkward, since Wendy Soto, even as the executive director of the CJCE, was on the board of Wyoming Equality and agitating for same-sex marriage long before it was legal. More than awkward, the implications of this would be staggering.

Should we drive all pro-life judges from the bench because of Roe v. Wade? Should we remove all judges who speak in favor of gun control because of the Second Amendment? While NARAL might favor the first, and the NRA the second, nobody who understands the importance of free speech could seriously want either.

[Keep reading. . .] 

From Holly Scheer, With Wyoming Judge’s Case, Left Aims To Ban Religious People From Legal Field, The Federalist:

If your religious views block you from performing a job, don’t do that job. That’s the Left’s refrain about religion and expressing it. If you’re religious, that’s fine, but it really needs to not impinge on others via your career. Keep your relationship with a Higher Power meekly to yourself.

The case of Judge Ruth Neely in Wyoming shows, in stark clarity, that it doesn’t actually matter whether religious people do their jobs well and keep their religion to themselves. It’s unacceptable to think and believe certain things, such as marriage being an institution between one man and one woman, and if you do that, forget about going into the legal profession. . . .

Ruth Neely has been a municipal judge for more than two decades. She hears cases about the types of things you normally see in small towns: traffic citations, parking tickets, animal control cases, alcohol infractions, and petty crimes. Marriage is not listed in the duties and responsibilities of this position. Neely also serves part-time as an unpaid court magistrate, and this position allow for solemnizing marriages. The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics (CJCE) has recommended that Neely be removed from both of her positions, including the one that doesn’t even perform marriages, simply because she has chosen to not solemnize gay marriages, a voluntary part of her unpaid job.

Neely has remained firm in her religious convictions. She’s an active member of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Pinedale, and bases her personal morality on that faith. Addressing the ethics committee’s concerns, Neely stated: “Homosexuality is a named sin in the Bible, as are drunkenness, thievery, lying, and the like. I can no more officiate at a same-sex wedding than I can buy beer for the alcoholic.”

Her faith has not interfered with any requirements of either judicial position she fills, and no marriages have been refused or sent elsewhere because of her beliefs. Jonathan Lange, a pastor in Wyoming and part of the Wyoming Pastor’s Network, describes another troubling part of this situation: “It was only because she had accepted a second, part-time job as circuit court magistrate that this question had any relevance at all. In that unpaid position, she was authorized, but not obligated, to solemnize marriages.” Neely is not paid as a judge in any position that performs wedding recognitions.

[Keep reading. . .]

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