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Judicial board warns McLennan County JP for stance on same-sex weddings

Judicial board warns McLennan County JP for stance on same-sex weddings

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McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley has been given a public warning by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for her “Bible-believing” stance that she will perform opposite-sex but not same-sex weddings.

In a two-page order made public Monday, the commission said that Hensley, JP for Precinct 1, Place 1, should receive a public warning for “casting doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

The commission said that Hensley violated the portion of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that 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. ...”

Hensley, who has been in office since 2014, declined comment on the public warning on Monday, as did her attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, of Austin. Both declined to say if Hensley will appeal the sanction, which has no practical effect on her role as an officeholder.

The commission’s order refers to comments Hensley made in a June 24, 2017, Tribune-Herald story in which Hensley said she “would only do a wedding between a man and a woman,” despite a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision two years earlier that established the constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

She said in the story that as a “Bible-believing” Christian, her conscience prohibited her from doing same-sex weddings, and she was entitled to a “religious exemption.” She said her office sometimes tells same-sex couples that the judge is not available and gives them a list of those who will perform same-sex weddings, including ministers and Precinct 3 JP David Pareya in West.

The order says that from Aug. 1, 2016, to the present, Hensley had performed opposite-sex weddings but has declined to perform same-sex ceremonies.

“Beginning on about Aug. 1, 2016, Judge Hensley and her court staff began giving all same-sex couples wishing to be married by Judge Hensley a document which stated, ‘I’m sorry, but Judge Hensley has a sincerely held religious belief as a Christian, and will not be able to perform any same-sex weddings,’” the order states.

Hensley told the commission at her hearing in August that she would recuse herself from a case in which a party doubted her impartiality on the basis that she publicly refuses to perform same-sex weddings, according to the order.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said Monday that, as an elected official, Hensley has the right to run her office the way she wants to.

Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents the county, agrees, saying elected officials can operate their offices as they wish, especially when it involves a duty, such as performing weddings, that they are not statutorily required to do.

“My advice when asked was that they should either do it for everyone or not do it at all,” Dixon said. “My view is if you do it, you do it for everybody, but if you are not going to do it for everybody, you just don’t do it.”

Justice of the Peace Pete Peterson took Dixon’s advice and ended his role in the popular Valentine’s Day mass wedding ceremony on the front steps of the McLennan County Courthouse for which he donned a bright red jacket.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct can take wide-ranging actions against judges based on the severity of the complaints, including suspending them from office, requiring additional legal education for judges or issuing private private or public sanctions against the judge.

The commission most frequently uses, by order of severity, admonitions, warnings and reprimands, with those that are made public considered more serious, according to the commission.

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