The religious liberty and freedom of conscience rights of judges who officiate weddings in Texas could be in danger. Judge Dianne Hensley and the First Liberty Institute have filed suit this week to have a court declare that these rights are protected by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Hensley, a justice of the peace in Waco since 2015, was issued a ‘public warning’ by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct in November for refusing to officiate ceremonies requested by same-sex couples.
However, she created a referral system for those seeking services for same-sex ceremonies, including one just three blocks from her office for the same price that she charges.
“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said.
Hensley is a Christian and such ceremonies violate her deeply held religious beliefs. She is protected by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, explained Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute.
“By investigating and punishing her for acting in accordance with the commands of her Christian faith, the State of Texas has substantially burdened the free exercise of her religion, with no compelling justification,” the lawsuit asserts.
The investigation into Hensley’s conduct was not prompted by a complaint to the Commission; the Commission initiated it based on an article in a local Waco newspaper.
According to Hensley, her office never received a complaint.
“Why go out of your way to impose a significant burden on someone and interfere with a system that was working well?” Dys said of the investigation and reprimand.
After the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Obergefell case in 2015, all judges in Waco stopped performing all weddings.
State law allows, but does not require, a justice of the peace to officiate weddings.
Hensley stopped officiating weddings for a time, but then recognized a need in her community for low-cost officiant services. So Hensley took the initiative and made arrangements with a local wedding chapel to facilitate weddings that she, whether for religious or scheduling reasons, could not officiate.
Additionally, Hensley has clerks in her office who are willing and able to officiate weddings.
“She found a way to honor her religious beliefs and the needs of her community,” Dys said. “We don’t need to ruin the career of a judge for abiding by her religious conviction. She has the right to stop providing officiating services at all.”
After the Obergefell decision, Governor Abbott issued the following statement, “The government must never pressure a person to abandon or violate his or her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding a topic such as marriage. That sort of religious coercion will never be a ‘compelling governmental interest,’ and it will never be ‘the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.’”
Furthermore, the Texas Constitution defines marriage as consisting “only of the union of one man and one woman.”
The lawsuit will be served on the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which will have several weeks to respond before the suit proceeds.
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.