(Opinion) — These are golden days for the Alliance Defending Freedom. If there’s a legal case challenging marriage equality, the ADF is there with a cadre of lawyers to defend its clients’ alleged “rights” to discriminate against the LGBT community.
The Arizona-based right-wing Christian extremist group has its fingerprints on anti-gay causes all over the world, including Jamaica, Belize and India, where it promotes laws that imprison consenting adults who engage in homosexual activity. Trying to keep transgendered people out of women’s bathrooms is its latest, most visible challenge in the United States, but the group has been active on a plethora of legal fronts and anti-LGBT causes:
— Drafting, disseminating and defending so-called “religious freedom restoration laws” that allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against homosexuals.
— Defending same-sex marriage bans in at least 25 states.
— Opposing anti-bullying programs that try to protect LGBT students.
— Labeling the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard a “hoax” to advance “the homosexual agenda.”
In Wyoming ADF is currently backing Pinedale Municipal Judge and and part-time circuit court magistrate Ruth Neely, who is trying to keep her government job even though she refuses uphold her legal obligation to marry same-sex couples. Neely is represented by a team of ADF attorneys who last week filed a motion with the Wyoming Supreme Court to reject a judicial commission’s recommendation to remove her from office.
It’s an interesting case, primarily because the judge has never actually been asked to perform her duties at a same-sex marriage ceremony. Shortly after a federal judge struck down Wyoming’s ban on gay marriage in 2014, Neely told a Sublette Examiner reporter that she wouldn’t perform same-sex marriages because of her religious beliefs against homosexuality.
That statement was enough for the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics to allege six separate rule violations, including acting with prejudice based on sexual orientation and refusing to uphold the law.
Neely reportedly rejected various attempts by the commission to settle the controversy, from resigning and not seeking judicial office in Wyoming again to publicly apologizing and agreeing to perform same-sex marriages.
In the news article that sparked the commission’s investigation, Neely succinctly summed up her views: “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made.”
Yes they do, and Neely clearly made her choice in this matter. Instead of performing her duties as a public servant, she chose to effectively denounce the gay, lesbian and transgendered people she is sworn to serve. It wasn’t a smart move.
Her ADF lawyers have argued that this is a First Amendment case, and that Neely’s freedom of speech and freedom of religion rights have been violated. I am not a lawyer — and I don’t play one on TV or pretend to be one in this column — but it seems clear to me that the ADF’s First Amendment defense is just an attempt to muddy the waters and breach the separation of church and state.
If Neely has personal religious convictions that make her unable to treat people who come before her court fairly and equally, she can’t be allowed to keep her job. The Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge shall not, while performing judicial duties, show bias or prejudice based upon factors such as race, sex and sexual orientation.
If marrying heterosexual couples and refusing to marry homosexual couples isn’t evidence of prejudice based on sexual orientation, what is?
Next, Neely’s attorneys employ the same disingenuous emotional argument they use in the many “religious freedom” laws they have urged state legislators to enact.
“This case threatens any judge who holds and communicates views about numerous potentially controversial topics,” the attorneys noted in their appeal to the state supreme court.
No, it doesn’t — and it’s patently absurd that the group even makes this claim. Would they argue that a judge who is a member of a white supremacist group and writes inflammatory articles for its racist website would be unjustly thrown out of office for sharing controversial views? Of course not. Our civil rights laws against segregation prohibit judges from supporting such acts and staying on the bench.
If a judge wrote or publicly spoke against interracial marriage, it would be an extreme violation of any state’s judicial ethics code. No one would be concerned about the supposed chilling effect on speech or how the judicial system would threaten a judge for simply expressing a controversial opinion.
When the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the state bans on same-sex marriage, it immediately made marriage equality the law of the land. No judge or cake baker or wedding photographer should be able to claim religious persecution as an excuse to discriminate against a class of people and be exempt from the law.
Neely’s defense that the commission launched its investigation of her conduct even though she hadn’t been asked to perform a gay wedding is a moot point because of her later actions. The judge said she would not sanctify any same-sex marriage because of her religious beliefs, and she reiterated her view when she informed the commission she would not back down from the position she’s held for 21 years.
ADF has the resources to keep up its fight against the LGBT population for a long time. The organization raises about $40 million a year with its propaganda campaign that claims it’s actually Christians who are being discriminated against and persecuted for their beliefs.
Media Matters, a watchdog group that keeps track of the far right’s efforts to misinform Americans about a broad range of topics has pointed out that ADF is conspicuously featured on Fox News.
“ADF doesn’t rely solely on their own mailing list and social media to spread the Christian discrimination narrative — Fox News frequently provides ADF a national platform to bring these cases to national attention and simultaneously defend [religious freedom restoration] legislation,” according to Media Matters’ website. “… ADF’s cozy relationship with Fox is mutually beneficial: ADF relies on Fox for publicity, and Fox relies on ADF for a steady stream of stories riling up its audience about Christians being under attack, allowing the network to campaign for anti-LGBT [laws] under the guise of protecting religious liberty.”
Anyone who thought anti-gay bigotry would quietly disappear after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling for marriage equality was extremely naive. As the Neely case demonstrates, the ADF is the dominant force behind the international effort to poison public opinion against LGBT issues. Stopping the organization in Wyoming is only one battle in what promises to be a long, anti-gay war in our nation’ courts.
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