A Texas judge who was publicly warned by the state not to refuse performing same-sex marriages punched back Tuesday filing a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning.
What provoked the lawsuit?
Dianne Hensley, a justice of the peace in McLennan County, had been referring same-sex couples to other capable parties in the area since August 2016, shortly after the Supreme Court's landmark Obergefell ruling asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
Hensley argued her "sincerely held" Christian beliefs precluded her from offering her services, but that those same Christian beliefs compelled her to "consider how to accommodate those seeking a local wedding officiant," according to the lawsuit.
Same-sex couples who requested Hensley perform their ceremony would subsequently receive a letter stating, "I'm sorry, but Judge Hensley has a sincerely held religious belief as a Christian, and will not be able to perform same-sex weddings."
But the referral response also provided the couples a list of alternative options in the area — including another judge and a local Unitarian Universalist church — which she says she compiled at her own expense.
But when the State Commission on Judicial Conduct caught wind of Hensley's referral system after the Waco Tribune published a story about it in 2017, the agency decided it needed to whip her into compliance, despite Hensley's insistence that there have been no public complaints about her referral system.
Last month, the agency issued a public warning to Hensley "for casting 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."
Reportedly, some members of the agency desired a more serious penalty for Hensley, initially voting to sanction her. Two members since removed from the agency are now claiming that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ousted them because of that desire.
Hensley is refusing to back down
Believing the law to be on her side, Hensley responded by filing a lawsuit against the agency, claiming it has violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by issuing the warning.
"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 defiantly said in a statement, according to the Texas Tribune.
The lawsuit is seeking a declaratory ruling from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to perform a same-sex marriage "if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate."
Though the public warning did not carry a fine, Hensley claims the investigation and warning "substantially burdened the free exercise of her religion, with no compelling justification," and she is seeking damages of $10,000.
Representing Hensley in the case is The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm, the Tribune reported. Jonathan Mitchell, a former solicitor general of Texas, will act as her attorney.