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Waco Judge Sues State Agency After Public Warning For Refusing To Officiate Same-Sex Marriages

Judge Dianne Hensley
Screenshot via KXXV-TV Waco
The Texas Tribune
Judge Dianne Hensley

A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.

The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.

“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 in a statement.

Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

The public warning issued by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct Nov. 12 did not carry a fine. But Hensley claims the investigation and warning “substantially burdened the free exercise of her religion, with no compelling justification.” She seeks damages of $10,000.

Her attorney on the case, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former solicitor general of Texas.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not immediately answer questions about the lawsuit and whether it will represent the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. That office typically represents state agencies in court, but in some cases has chosen not to do so.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has made religious liberty a priority of his office, has worked alongside the First Liberty Institute in the past, including on a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio after it banned Chick-fil-A from opening a location in its airport.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct did not immediately return a request for comment.

Hensley’s case has already generated significant public attention. Two members of the commission, who were appointed last year by the governor, claim he ousted them after they indicated they would vote to sanction Hensley. A spokesman for the governor said all nominations are based on merit.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Emma Platoff is a breaking news reporter at The Texas Tribune. She previously worked at the Tribune as a reporting fellow and is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she studied English literature and nonfiction writing. She has also worked as the managing editor of the Yale Daily News and as an intern at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Hartford Courant.