An Austin intermediate appellate court has upheld a Travis County judge’s decision to throw out McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley’s lawsuit against the state panel that sanctioned her in 2019 for refusing to perform same-sex weddings.
In an opinion issued Thursday, the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed 459th State District Judge Jan Soifer’s June 2021 decision to dismiss Hensley’s lawsuit against the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The appellate court judges agreed with Soifer that the commission has statutory and sovereign immunity from the claims, that Hensley failed to exhaust other legal remedies before filing her lawsuit and that she failed to establish her claims that commission members were without legal authority to issue the public reprimand against Hensley.
Hensley has said she has always expected the case will ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Texas. She referred questions about the Thursday ruling to her attorneys at the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile religious liberty legal group based in Plano.
Hensley, a Republican who is unopposed in Tuesday’s election in her bid for a third term, has officiated at weddings between men and women but refused to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying it goes against her “Bible-believing Christian conscience.”
She said Thursday she has stopped performing any weddings while her lawsuit is pending. Her lawsuit alleges the commission violated her rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The commission’s public warning against Hensley said she violated the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by “casting doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.” It also said she has refused to perform same-sex weddings since August 2016, despite the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established constitutional rights to same-sex marriage.
Hensley’s lawsuit originally was filed in McLennan County. However, it was transferred to Travis County after a contested hearing.
Her petition asserts the commission violated her rights by punishing her for “recusing herself from officiating at same-sex weddings, in accordance with the commands of her Christian faith.” She also claimed “the commission’s investigation and punishment” of her placed a substantial burden on her free exercise of religion.
See here, here, and here for the background. The court information on the case is here, and there was both a majority opinion and a concurring opinion, in which one Justice agreed with the judgment but not the reasoning behind it. I didn’t slog my way through the majority opinion, but all it’s doing is upholding the lower court, so there’s nothing new here. I stand by what I wrote about her lawsuit when she filed it in 2019. I only regret that she hasn’t seen fit to take my advice. I’m sure this will get to SCOTx and from there who knows what will happen, but for now justice has been served. Thanks to my friend Carmen for giving me a heads up about this one – I had briefly seen a headline about the opinion, which came out last week, but hadn’t gotten back to it. The DMN has more.