There has to be a way to honor someone’s religious beliefs and respect members of the LGBT community at the same time. Judge Dianne Hensley thought she struck that balance. Instead, she received an official reprimand from the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct (“Commission”).
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, public officials who are authorized (but not required) to officiate wedding ceremonies have faced the same dilemma Dianne faced. Many, rather than risk compromising their religious convictions, simply stopped officiating all weddings. But some demand that justices of the peace like Dianne either officiate all marriages or find themselves disqualified from office altogether.
Dianne knew there had to be another way. What if she were able to reconcile her religious beliefs with serving the needs of her community?
She knows that her convictions prevent her from officiating gay weddings, but she also respectfully understands that many of her gay friends do not share that same conviction. If she, like most of the justices of the peace in McLennan County, Texas, stopped officiating weddings altogether, it is those without ready access to low-cost alternatives who suffer most.
Instead, she found a way to honor her religious convictions and make sure any gay couple who wanted to get married could get married without delay or additional cost. Her referral system worked brilliantly.
If, because of schedule or moral reasons, Dianne could not officiate a requested wedding, she referred them to those who could — including a nearby walk-in wedding chapel. As soon as the couple holding a marriage license could make the three-block walk to the walk-in wedding chapel, they could be married.
It would cost the same, too. In fact, Judge Hensley offered to pay from her own pocket the difference between her rate and that of the walk-in wedding chapel. But the walk-in wedding chapel simply agreed to reduce its rate, instead, for those referred by Judge Hensley’s office.
It worked well. Dianne’s religious convictions remained undisturbed and her referral efforts accounted for more low-cost gay weddings than perhaps any other public official in all of McLennan County. But then, without having received a complaint, the Commission launched an investigation. Rather than praise her proactive problem solving, they determined she had to be reprimanded.
Dianne received a “Public Warning” for trying to honor her religious beliefs while respecting members of the gay community. It’s understandable why many have strong feelings about gay marriage, but surely we should be able to agree that justices of the peace like Dianne Hensley should not have their careers ruined for following both the rules of their faith and the law alike.
Surely in 2020, we can find a way to protect those with religious beliefs that prevent them from officiating weddings with which they morally disagree, while also accommodating the marriage of anyone lawfully allowed to wed. At the very least, no state agency should be punishing Dianne for her reasonable effort to reconcile her religious beliefs while meeting the needs of her community.
In fact, in a lawsuit we at First Liberty Institute filed in defense of Dianne, we argue that the Commission’s disciplinary actions violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There’s no compelling justification for the commissioners to punish a justice of the peace who, rather than cease officiating weddings entirely, accommodated more low-cost same-sex marriages than perhaps anyone in her entire local area.
Judge Hensley also hopes to continue using her referral system, even though she’s not required to officiate weddings at all. More than that, justices of the peace and other elected officials with the ability to officiate weddings are watching, hoping for a way to honor the distinctiveness of their faith while also respecting those in the gay community who wish to be married.
Is the only option really more reprimands? More penalties? More fines? Why must it either be officiate no weddings, officiate all weddings, or be disqualified from office because of your religious convictions, when there is a reasonable way to respect everyone involved?
Rather than punish her, the Commission ought to have recognized Dianne’s effort to balance her faith with the needs of her community — a type of basic, human, and much needed fairness missing in much of America today.
Jeremy Dys (@JeremyDys) is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.