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Texas agency rebukes judge on gay marriage policy

Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman on

Published in News & Features

AUSTIN, Texas -- A state ethics agency has rebuked a Waco justice of the peace for declining to perform same-sex marriages despite providing that service to couples of the opposite sex.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct concluded that Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley violated ethical standards by adopting a policy that casts doubt on her ability to treat LGBTQ people fairly in her courtroom.

The policy, enacted by Hensley based on her Christian beliefs, violated a canon of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that requires judges to act in ways that "do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially," the commission said in a public warning issued Nov. 12 but announced Monday.

A public warning is a midlevel rebuke -- below a reprimand but above an admonition -- from a state agency charged with protecting public confidence in judges at every level in Texas.

The warning is likely to stoke a long-simmering political battle in the Texas Legislature over where to draw the line when it comes to protecting religious beliefs.

That fight has only intensified since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that states including Texas could not prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.

 

Conservative Republicans have responded by trying, with little success thus far, to pass laws allowing people, businesses and government officials to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples if gay marriage violates a sincerely held religious belief. Forcing Christians and others to perform actions that violate their beliefs intrudes on religious freedom and unfairly discriminates against believers, they argue.

In the legislative session that ended in May, more than a dozen such bills were filed by Republicans, including two that were not acted upon that would have allowed judges like Hensley to refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies over religious objections.

The authors of the bills could not be reached Monday.

Only one religious practice bill was passed into law earlier this year. Known as the "Save Chick-fil-A bill," it bars local governments from taking "any adverse action" against people or businesses based on membership in, or support for, a religious organization. The law was inspired by San Antonio's refusal to allow the restaurant chain to open an airport location based on company support for organizations that oppose gay marriage.

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