Judge Dianne Hensley’s office is located just across the street from the agency where residents obtain marriage licenses. Consequently, her office received many requests for weddings. She thought it was a shame that couples seeking a low-cost wedding had such limited options – especially given that her office is located right next to where folks get their marriage license in McLennan County.
In Texas, a judge may perform a wedding but it is not a requirement of their duties.
Consequently, in the aftermath of Obergefell, citizens in the Waco area who sought a civil marriage had to travel some distance to do so, and incur the associated expense.
As a person of faith and a public servant, Judge Hensley was determined not to violate her own conscience or the law. And while she has a religious objection to officiating same-sex weddings, she just wanted to offer a low-cost wedding option to all residents and follow the law regarding same-sex couples.
So, she set out to make sure that everyone—including same-sex couples—could be accommodated if they came to her office. Judge Hensley made arrangements with a civil officiant authorized to conduct weddings in Waco just down the street from her office in the courthouse. Judge Hensley even offered to pay any difference in cost for same-sex couples that she would refer, but the person agreed to charge the same rate as Judge Hensley.
In addition, clerks in Judge Hensley’s office are licensed to perform weddings. Judge Hensley instructed her staff to tell anyone she cannot marry because of scheduling or religious reasons that an arrangement has been made to accommodate them within the same timeframe and for the same cost.
There have been several couples who have been accommodated by Judge Hensley’s staff and happily taken the judge up on the referral. In fact, no one has complained about Judge Hensley’s referral system. Instead, the most common response to being provided a list of options is, “Thank you!” No one complained to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (“CJC”) either. However, the Commission became aware of Judge Hensley’s practice and decided on its own authority to initiate its own, lengthy investigation into her referral system.
Because of Judge Hensley, anyone who wants to get married in McLennan County and Waco can get married. Judge Hensley followed the law, came up with an innovative solution to reconcile her religious convictions while serving the needs of her community, and no one has complained. But for ensuring that anyone who wants to get married can get married, she’s received a “Public Warning” from the CJC.
To defend Judge Hensley, First Liberty Institute has filed a lawsuit on her behalf.
The lawsuit alleges that Judge Hensley was wrongly punished for accommodating same-sex marriages and, further, the Commission’s “Public Warning” of Judge Hensley violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In June 2021, the case was dismissed by Judge Jan Soifer of Austin’s 459th State District Court in Travis County. In late 2021, First Liberty appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals for the Third Appellate District in Austin, which affirmed Judge Soifer’s decision in November 2022.
“Because of Judge Hensley, anyone who wants to get married in McLennan County can get married,” said Jeremy Dys, Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications at First Liberty Institute. “For simply trying to reconcile her religious beliefs while meeting the needs of her community—ensuring anyone can get married who wants to be married—the Commission on Judicial Conduct punished her.”
Judge Hensley said, “I sought a solution so that anyone in McLennan County who wants to get married can do so. I have, do, and always will follow the law.”
For Immediate Release: 12.19.22
Contact: Peyto Luke, email@example.com
Statement from First Liberty Institute Regarding McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley
Austin, TX—The following statement may be attributed to Justin Butterfield, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty:
Judge Hensley is serving her community by ensuring that anyone who wants to get married can get married even when she’s unavailable. For that, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct punished her, violating her rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We look forward to the Texas Supreme Court correcting this wrong.
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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Peyton Luke at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 972-941-4453.