Refusing to perform same-sex marriages

Recently, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly warned a judge for refusing to perform same-sex weddings while continuing to perform opposite sex weddings.  Public Warning of Hensley (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct November 12, 2019).  The Commission found that the judge had cast “doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation . . . .”  (According to the Texas Tribune, the judge has filed a lawsuit in state court claiming that the Commission violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and seeking a declaratory judgment that “any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding ‘if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.’”)

Beginning in August 2016, the judge and her court staff gave all same-sex couples wishing to be married by the judge a document stating:  “I’m sorry, but Judge Hensley has a sincerely held religious belief as a Christian, and will not be able to perform any same sex weddings.”  The document includes a list of local persons who would officiate a same-sex wedding.

On June 24, 2017, the Waco Tribune published an article on their web-site entitled, “No Courthouse Weddings in Waco for Same-Sex Couples, 2 Years After Supreme Court Ruling.”  The article reported that the judge “would only do a wedding between a man and a woman.”

Other judges have also been publicly sanctioned for refusing to perform same-sex marriages.

In 2013, based on a stipulation and agreement, the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished a judge for publicly stating he would not perform same-sex marriages in his judicial capacity while he continued to perform opposite-sex marriages.  In re Tabor (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 4, 2013).

On November 6, 2012, Washington voters passed a referendum approving same-sex marriage.  During an administrative meeting with judges and court personnel shortly before the referendum was to take effect, the judge stated that he felt “uncomfortable” performing same-sex marriages and asked his colleague who did not have similar personal objections to officiate in his stead.  Reporters learned about his position from an unidentified source, and his statement was broadly publicized.  After several newspaper articles and on-line comments, to press clarify his position, the judge explained that his decision not to marry same-sex couples was very personal and based on his religious views, and that, because judges are not required to perform marriages, he believed he had a right to decline to perform same-sex marriages so long as those seeking to be married have access to another judge without delay.

Following contact by the Commission, of his own volition, the judge ceased performing all marriages.

The judge accepted “the Commission’s determination that, by announcing he would not solemnize same-sex marriage due to his philosophical and religious concerns while continuing to solemnize opposite-sex marriages, the judge appeared to express a discriminatory intent against a statutorily protected class of people, thereby undermining public confidence in his impartiality.  Acknowledging that the judge was not required to solemnize marriages, the Commission explained that, “having chosen to make himself available to solemnize some weddings, . . . he is bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct to do so in a way that does not discriminate or appear to discriminate against a statutorily protected class of people.”

The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes on judicial officers a specific, enforceable obligation to avoid bias and the appearance of bias.  These obligations go beyond those imposed on others who serve the general public, reflecting the unique and integral role judicial officers play in our constitutional scheme of justice honoring the rule of law.  Judges must not only be impartial, but must also be perceived as impartial, in order to properly fulfill that role . . . .

By even temporarily acting in a discriminatory fashion toward gay men and lesbians, in stating that he would not solemnize their marriages when he continued to solemnize heterosexual marriages, and by commenting on that decision publicly, a reasonable person could objectively conclude that he might act in a discriminatory fashion toward gay or lesbian litigants, lawyers, or witnesses.

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In a de novo review, the Wyoming Supreme Court censured a judge for her refusal to perform same-sex marriages and ordered that she either perform no marriage ceremonies or that she perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.  Inquiry Concerning Neely, 390 P.3d 728 (Wyoming 2017).  For a longer discussion of the case, see a previous blog post.

See also Moore v. Judicial Inquiry Commission (Alabama Supreme Court April 19, 2017) (suspension until end of term of Chief Justice for entering an administrative order that directed all probate judges to follow the state’s laws banning same-sex marriage in disregard of a federal court injunction; In re the Matter of Nance, Findings of fact, conclusions of law, and final order (Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission December 19, 2017) (public reprimand for entering a general order declaring that “under no circumstance” would the adoption of a child by a homosexual be in the child’s best interest); Inquiry Concerning Day, 413 P.3d 907 (Oregon 2018) (holding that judge committed willful misconduct by having his staff screen marriage requests to ensure that he did not marry a same-sex couple, but declining to consider the judge’s constitutional arguments because, even if it considered his refusal to perform same-sex marriages, it would impose the same sanction (a three-year suspension without pay) as it was imposing for other violations); Re Atherton (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct December 18, 2015) (public reprimand for an order dismissing a complaint for divorce because, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage in Obergerefell v. Hodges, “Tennesseans, corporately, have been deemed by the U.S. Supreme Court to be incompetent to define and address such keystone/central institutions such as marriage and, thereby, at a minimum, contested divorces”).

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In 2014 and 2015, judicial ethics committees or conduct commissions in 6 states issued opinions, orders, or articles advising that a judge cannot refuse to perform same-sex marriages if the judge performs opposite-sex marriages even if the refusal is based on sincerely held religious or personal beliefs.  For an analysis of those advisory opinions, see a previous blog post.

In 2019, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics And Professional Responsibility issued a formal opinion on judges and same-sex weddings.  ABA Formal Opinion 485 (2019).  The opinion advised that, in a jurisdiction in which judges are obligated to perform marriages, a judge may not decline to perform marriages for same-sex couples.  In a jurisdiction in which performing marriages is a discretionary judicial function, the committee stated, a judge may not decline to perform marriages for same-sex couples if the judge agrees to perform opposite-sex marriages but may refuse to perform all marriages for members of the public while still performing marriages for family and friends as long as they do not refuse to perform same-sex marriages for family and friends.

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