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Supreme Court win gives Wyoming gays reason to cheer

Sara Burlingame lived in dread before the Wyoming Supreme Court last week censured a municipal court judge for saying she would refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

“I had nightmares about it,” said Burlingame, education and outreach coordinator of Wyoming Equality, which seeks to enhance the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

A friend told her the judge’s attorney was provided by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization with deep pockets and a point to prove. Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that same sex unions are legal, the judge told a Pinedale reporter she wouldn’t officiate at a gay wedding ceremony.

“My friend said, ‘If they [ADF] come to your state, you’re screwed,'” Burlingame recalled. “They have billions of dollars to spend.”

No one can say that part-time magistrate Ruth Neely of Pinedale didn’t have the best legal representation she could get. The ADF rushed to Neely’s side, arguing that judges can decline to perform certain duties if they consider them contrary to their religious beliefs.

Burlingame was overjoyed at the 3-2 decision by Wyoming’s highest court to censure Neely, though the judge was allowed to retain her position with the court.

“Judge Neely shall either perform no marriage ceremonies or she shall perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation,” Justice Ruth Fox declared in her majority opinion.

One of the most damaging charges against Neely was that she wrote to the Judicial Advisory Commission,  “Without getting in too deeply here, homosexuality is a named sin in the Bible, as are drunkenness, thievery, lying and the like.” The commission later recommended she be removed from office.

“I submit to you that somebody with that attitude really should not be on the bench,” Patrick Dixon, disciplinary counsel, told the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.

Rule of law can’t be bought

Burlingame celebrated the court decision; “For all of our despair and all that [Donald] Trump has emboldened, I say, ‘Hallelujah’ that this decision came down. It shows that our rule of law is here for us, and they couldn’t buy it!”

Neely had never been asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony, but she told then-Sublette Examiner reporter Ned Donovan that she would refuse if such a request was made.

The unexpected victory for the LGBT community in Wyoming couldn’t have come at a better time. The celebrations in 2015 for the right of gays and lesbians to marry had subsided and many Americans wondered what all the fuss was about. Then a dark orange cloud appeared on the horizon that threatened all of the hard-fought LGBT advances: the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

“When Trump was elected, our greatest fear was the clock will be turned back on some of the advancements that we’ve made,” said Rob Johnston of Casper. Johnston and his husband Carl Oleson sued the state of Wyoming in 2014 to have their legal marriage in Canada officially recognized.

Johnston said they were in the process of two adoptions before Trump’s inaugural. “Our goal was to have both adoptions finalized before there could be some idiotic ruling that gay couples couldn’t adopt,” he said. The couple made it, but it took longer than expected. One adoption was completed in late December, and the other was finalized about two weeks ago.

While he and Oleson adore life with their new children, Johnston said he remains pessimistic about life under the new Trump administration.”My fear is that it’s going to get worse, because I see things now that show people have been given permission to hate you to your face,” Johnston said.

He said he learned recently about an adoption service in another state that has been given the option to decide if it would allow gay couples to be clients.

“So it’s already started,” Johnston said. “We just have to be so vigilant. To be candid I thought the fight was, not over, but I thought the fight was at a point where we could get on with our lives and do other things.

“Now it feels like we’re back on the defensive, and we need to look at who do we need to strategically partner with to make sure that we don’t step back — and do it in a way that isn’t alienating those in power,” he said. “And I think that’s the challenge. I find myself as a gay man going, ‘Is this when I really resist or is this when I try to play well with others?’ To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

Johnston described himself as “an old ACT UP activist,” referring to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power that began protesting in the late 1980s. “I’m beginning to feel like all of that is going to have to come back to the forefront for us to be OK. Not to move forward, but just to be OK,” he said.

“It’s really hard, because you want at some level community support for what it is you’re trying to do,” he said. “But at the same time I almost have a ‘f—k you’ attitude; if you’re not with me then get out of my way. That’s really where I am. I feel I have played nice most of my life. I’ve played the game, done what everybody’s expected me to do. And I’m really at the point now that we need to be moving forward on things. There are too many elephants in the room.”

Johnston said when he and his husband enrolled their teen transgendered male-to-female daughter in school, they learned it had no special groups or activities for LGBT students.

Problems at ‘most accommodating’ school

“The accommodation they’ve made for our daughter is they let her use the staff bathroom, but that’s not good enough,” he said. “So when she does use the girls’ bathroom she gets in trouble and gets detention. But we really feel the school that she’s in is probably the most accommodating in the city.”

With his new parental pride, Johnston likes to talk about the changes in his life. “Now I have kids. They don’t know it, but I’m their protector. Nobody is going to mess with them.”

Johnston, of course, is upset with Trump’s decision that transgendered people have to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender at birth. It’s another in a long list of reasons why Trump’s presidency has him on edge.

He doesn’t want his children to grow up feeling like they have to apologize because who they are makes someone else uncomfortable, he said. But both his and Oleson’s kids never have to be afraid to talk to them about their sexuality.

“When I came out it was very ugly with my family,” Johnston recalled. His relationship with one brother was non-existent. “Anytime I came back to see the family he wouldn’t let me visit his house. He and his wife would pack up and go. I didn’t see or talk to him for 15 years.”

Remarkably, Johnston said his brother today is the closest member of his family. How did that happen?

“We decided to just keep up our dialogue. We talk about things without arguing,” he said, adding that it’s not always easy. “He’s a Trump supporter.”

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Can finding common ground actually be that easy — achieved just by talking? Burlingame said she was surprised at the almost universally negative response in Wyoming to failed House Bill 135, which sought to allow business and government employees to discriminate against gays and lesbians because of their own religious beliefs.

“I think people in Wyoming actually value families,” Burlingame said. “We value families being supported, having resources. We actually value fairness. It rankles; it offends our sensibilities when we see a lack of fairness, whether they understand what it’s like being gay and living in Casper and adopting a child or not.

“We don’t like unfairness, and maybe that will be our salvation.”

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About the Author

kerry.drake33@yahoo.com

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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3 Responses to Supreme Court win gives Wyoming gays reason to cheer

  1. Mark E Talboom, D.C. March 14, 2017 at 9:32 am #

    I guess not everyone in the EQUALITY STATE is interested in EQUALITY for all. This judge had shown her bigotry and prejudice and should be removed post-haste from ever making another decision that affects the lives of others.

    Who knows what other personal beliefs color her legal “decisions”. People like Judge Neely love to cherry-pick The Bible to reinforce their own prejudices, particularly the Old Testament. As a New Testament kind of guy, I’ve never read where Jesus said to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

    But that aside, I am grateful for the 1st Amendment of the Constitution with guarantees a separation of church and state as well a freedom FROM religion. The USA is NOT a “Christian Nation”, but one made up of all faiths or none at all. Ms. Neely needs to leave her personal beliefs on the doorstep when she comes to her workplace where she makes decisions that will affect many lives, or resign and let someone who is interested in following the letter of the law and the Constitution do the job.

    Largo, Florida

  2. Bob LeResche March 14, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    The Neely decision makes me cringe. How could 2 out of 5 Wyoming Supreme Court Justices believe that a State Judge has the right to discriminate against same-sex couples? And how could the entire panel decide that a judge can, in the end, pick and choose which of her duties she cares to perform and still keep her job? And, Kerry, to characterize this pyrrhic ‘victory’ as “unexpected” only suggests that purchasing our court’s justice is commonplace in Wyoming. Something’s seriously amiss here. No one should be cheering.

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  3. Karin Ebertz March 14, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    Good story!

    Gillette, Wyoming

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