Judge Hensley Ensures All Couples Can Marry

Judge Dianne Hensley has served as a justice of the peace in Waco, Texas since 2015. Since Judge Hensley’s office is just across the street from the local agency where residents obtain marriage licenses, her office receives many requests for weddings. Judge Hensley has been happy to officiate over many couples’ weddings and enjoys being a part of one of the most special days of their lives.

Texas law allows judges and justices of the peace to officiate weddings but does not require them to do so. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015, all Waco judges and justices of the peace (including Judge Hensley) stopped performing weddings entirely due to their religious convictions, which made them unable to officiate same-sex weddings. The lack of available local judges forced Waco couples seeking a low-cost wedding officiant to travel farther and incur greater expenses to get married. Some couples called Judge Hensley’s office literally in tears because they could not find an officiant who met their needs.

Judge Hensley wanted to ensure all couples seeking to be married in Waco could get married, including same-sex couples. So Judge Hensley resumed officiating opposite-sex weddings and arranged for a local minister, just blocks away from Judge Hensley’s office, to accept referrals for weddings that Judge Hensley could not officiate, whether for religious or scheduling reasons. The minister graciously provided a discount to couples referred to her by Judge Hensley to ensure the couples could get married at no additional cost.

When Judge Hensley was unable to marry a couple for scheduling or religious reasons, her staff would inform the couple of the accommodation arrangement and refer them to the civil officiant. Multiple couples were accommodated by this system and happily accepted the referral. No one ever complained about Judge Hensley’s referral system. In fact, most couples were grateful for the accommodation, which allowed them to get married without delay or additional cost.

Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct Issues a Public Warning

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) became aware of Judge Hensley’s practice and decided, on its own authority, to initiate a lengthy investigation into her referral system. Judge Hensley had followed the law, come up with an innovative solution to reconcile her religious convictions while serving the needs of her community, and received no complaints about her action. But the CJC still issued a “Public Warning” to her, alleging that her refusal to officiate same-sex weddings and her referrals of couples to a local minister “cast reasonable doubt on [her] capacity to act impartially as a judge.” In response to this warning, Judge Hensley stopped performing weddings entirely.

First Liberty Responds

First Liberty Institute and Jonathan F. Mitchell of Mitchell Law PLLC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Judge Hensley, arguing that Judge Hensley was wrongly punished for her unwillingness to perform same-sex marriages. The attorneys contend that the Commission’s Public Warning to Judge Hensley and its threats of further discipline violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Texas RFRA). The attorneys are seeking to ensure that Judge Hensley is able to continue officiating at weddings while offering her referral system, in accordance with her religious beliefs.

In early 2023, the legal team appealed Judge Hensley’s case to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard the case in October 2023.

“Judge Hensley has been adhering to the law and the legal guidance provided by the Attorney General of Texas,” said Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Her way of reconciling her religious beliefs while meeting the needs of her community is not just legal but should be a model for public officials across Texas.”

News Release
For Immediate Release: 10.25.23
Contact: Peyton Drew, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

Judge Facing Religious Discrimination Makes Case to Texas Supreme Court
Attorneys argue that Judge Dianne Hensley acted in full compliance with the law when recusing herself from conducting same-sex weddings.

Austin, TX—Attorneys from Mitchell Law LLP and First Liberty Institute argued before the Texas Supreme Court today on behalf of Judge Dianne Hensley, who received a reprimand from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for recusing herself from performing same-sex weddings.

“Judge Hensley has been adhering to the law and the legal guidance provided by the Attorney General of Texas,” said Hiram Sasser. “Her way of reconciling her religious beliefs while meeting the needs of her community is not just legal but should be a model for public officials across Texas.”

To ensure all residents of McLennan County have access to low-cost wedding ceremonies, at her own expense, Judge Hensley invested extensive time and resources to compile a referral list of alternative, local wedding officiants.  The list included one within walking distance of her office who agreed to reduce the cost of the wedding to the same amount Judge Hensley received and who would do same-sex weddings within the same timeframe as Judge Hensley. Her innovative referral solution provided wedding options after many public officials ceased from officiating any and all weddings. According to Texas law, judges are not required to officiate weddings, but Judge Hensley sought to ensure that those in McLennan County seeking to be married were accommodated, regardless of their sexual orientation. Despite her efforts and no complaints from the public, the State Commission issued a “Public Warning” sanctioning her for the referral solution and accused her of violating certain canons of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Peyton Drew at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

News Release – 12.17.19

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