Jack County Judge Brian Keith Umphress filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas last month against the members of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct asking for clarity about his ability to refuse to officiate weddings of same-sex couples.
Situated in the north-central part of Texas, Jack County is a rural county about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Umphress is elected as the county judge, who both presides over the commissioners court and has executive duties in the county.
In November, the state commission issued a public warning to McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley for declining to officiate at same-sex ceremonies based on her religious convictions.
Umphress, who holds similar views to Hensley, asserts in his lawsuit that if he “persists in his refusal to officiate at same-sex ceremonies,” he is risking disciplinary action by the commission.
The commission concluded that Hensley had cast doubt on her judicial impartiality and violated Canan 4A(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. Hensley has filed suit against the commission in state court.
Umphress is authorized by Texas law to officiate weddings, but he points out that the Texas Constitution, which he is bound to uphold as an officer of the state, defines marriage as consisting “only of the union of one man and one woman.”
He is asking the federal district court to issue a declaratory judgment that he is not obligated as a state judge to preside at a same-sex ceremony. While the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the United States Supreme Court in 2015 recognizes that same-sex couples have the right to marry, it did not include any compulsion by all officiants to carry out such ceremonies.
Umphress argues that the commission’s disciplinary action against Hensley was based on a vague interpretation of impartiality under Canon 4A(1), which states “A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extra-judicial activities so that they do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge…”
However, the commission does not give judges clarity about what conduct would be prohibited by this interpretation of “impartiality.” Umphress belongs to a church that believes homosexual conduct is immoral and contrary to scripture. His lawsuit asks if his church membership would amount to “extra-judicial” activities that the commission might punish as “impartial.”
“The Commission’s current interpretation of Canon 4A(1) also calls into question whether judges may express criticism or disapproval of other sexual behaviors such as adultery, pre-marital sex, polygamy, prostitution, pederasty, and pedophilia,” the complaint asserts.
Additionally, Umphress asks the court to declare that the First Amendment protects his religious and conscience rights to disagree with same-sex marriage and to enjoin the State Commission on Judicial Conduct from disciplining him for such views.
The federal court system is considered essential under current orders; therefore, court filings and hearings may continue via electronic means, but trials are not currently taking place.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.