Waco: Local JP reprimanded over same-sex weddings punches back

Republican McLennan County Pct. 1, Pl. 1 Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley, warned over her...
Republican McLennan County Pct. 1, Pl. 1 Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley, warned over her refusal to perform same-sex weddings, announced Tuesday she has filed a lawsuit against the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and its members that could have statewide impact. (Photo by John Carroll)(KWTX)
Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 8:54 AM CST
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Republican McLennan County Pct. 1, Pl. 1 Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley, who received a warning in November from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct after refusing to perform same-sex marriages while continuing to officiate weddings between heterosexual couples has filed a lawsuit against the commission and its members that could have statewide impact.

The suit not only seeks damages for the costs Hensley incurred in responding to the commission’s investigation and the income she lost when she stopped performing weddings in response to the commission’s investigation and sanctions, but also a judgement that the commission “violated her rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Act by investigating and sanctioning her for recusing herself from officiating at same-sex weddings, and by threatening to impose further discipline if she persists in recusing herself from officiating at same-sex weddings.”

She’s also seeking a class-wide declaratory judgement that the Religious Freedom Act allows all of the state’s justices of the peace to rescue themselves from officiating same-sex weddings; and that justices of the peace don’t violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by recusing themselves from same-sex weddings or by publicly expressing disapproval of homosexual behavior or by supporting or affiliating with churches and charitable institutions that oppose homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage.

She’s also seeking a judgement that the commission lacks authority to discipline justices of the peace for refusing to officiate at same sex weddings when the Texas Constitution and the laws of Texas continue to define marriage as union of one man and one woman.

Hensley, the suit says, officiated about 80 weddings as a justice of the peace before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in 2015 that the right of gay couples to marry is protected by the U.S. Constitution, requiring all 50 states to perform and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples on the same terms as the marriages of heterosexual couples.

Texas justices of the peace aren't required to perform weddings and after the ruling some simply stopped officiating marriages altogether.

After the ruling, the suit says, Hensley performed four more previously scheduled ceremonies and then did not book any between June 26 2015 and Aug. 1, 2016.

Since August 2016, the suit says, Hensley has officiated ceremonies for 238 couples, for each of which she charges $100.

The commission’s warning in November said Hensley cast “doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person's sexual orientation in violation of Canon 4A(l) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct,” which says "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 .... "

Hensley testified before the commission during the investigation that "she would recuse herself from a case in which a party doubted her impartiality on the basis she publicly refuses to perform same-sex weddings.”

And, in the 84-page suit, she denies her refusal to marry same-sex couples affects her impartiality in other matters and argued that while she cannot officiate same-sex ceremonies because of “her firmly held religious beliefs,” the “same religious convictions compel Judge Hensley to treat all people, regardless of sexual preference or orientation, with dignity, respect, and kindness.”

She says that she “invested extensive time and resources” to produce a referral list of “alternative, local and low-cost wedding officiants in Waco that she provides to people for whom she is unable to officiate due to time constraints or her religious convictions.”

Hensley, the suit says, received no complaints about the referral system and argues that her the system complies with state law and “that the law of Texas prevents the commission from imposing any further discipline on justices of the peace who recuse themselves from officiating at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The commission launched its investigation after the Waco Tribune-Herald reported in June 2017 that Hensley "would only do a wedding between a man and a woman."

The suit was filed with the support of the Plano-based First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as “the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans.”

“All we’re asking for Judge Hensley is the opportunity to be afforded the same rights as anybody else to be able to either live their life according to their faith or make accommodations for when those areas may overlap in disagreement,” the group’s special counsel litigation and communications Jeremy Dys said, flanked by Hensley Tuesday afternoon during a news conference outside the McLennan County Courthouse.

“No judge should have their career ruined or otherwise impugned for simply abiding by their faith,” he said.

The institute, according to critics including the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a strong anti-choice, anti-LGBT agenda.

“Like other organizations of the Christian Right,” the SPLC says, “FLI paints Christians as ‘victims’ of oppression and works to implement anti-LGBT policies and push lawsuits that could codify discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of so-called ‘religious liberty.’”

WACO, Texas (KWTX)—The lawsuit filed by McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley over the reprimand she received for marrying heterosexual couples, but not same-sex couples, could have statewide impact and produced a statewide reaction.

Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, which is committed to securing full equality for LGBTQ residents, said in a statement that Hensley “took an oath to service all Texans.

“The United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land has ruled that LGBTQ people, like everyone else, shall be married and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans.  This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials.  Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable.  Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”

But Mary Elizabeth Castle, a policy advisor for Texas Values, a group that says it stands for “faith, family and freedom,” said in a statement that “It is appalling that a judge is being publicly reprimanded for holding sincerely religious beliefs and serving justice as she sees fit under the law.”

“Texas Values worked hard in the 85th Texas legislative session to ensure that an amendment was passed to protect government officials from being unfairly punished by bureaucratic ideologues; however, there appears to be a need for more work to be done on this issue.”  (Staff)