McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued a warning to McLennan County Precinct 1 (Waco) Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley for refusing to perform marriages for same-sex couples while continuing to do so for opposite-sex couples. The public warning was issued Nov. 12 and announced Monday, Dec. 2.

The commission concluded that Hensely “violated ethical standards by adopting a policy that casts doubt on her ability to treat LGBTQ people fairly in her courtroom,” according to a report by the Austin American-Statesman. The commission noted that the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires that judges “do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially,” and that her refusal to treat all couples equally does indeed casts such doubts.

KWTX TV in Waco reported that since August 2016, Hensley and her staff have given same-sex couples asking the JP to perform their marriage ceremonies a document stating: “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 Waco TV station also noted that according to the warning document, Hensley testified before the commission that “she would recuse herself from a case in which a party doubted her impartiality on the basis she publicly refuses to perform same-sex weddings.”

“A public warning is a mid-level rebuke — below a reprimand but above an admonition — from a state agency charged with protecting public confidence in judges at every level in Texas,” the Statesman explained.

In a letter to the editor published March 2, 2018, in the Waco Tribune-Herald, Kathy Endres of Woodway encouraged her fellow Precinct 1 residents to re-elect Hensley, a Republican because she had cleared up a backlog of cases since first being elected, because she had enacted truancy policies that led to a reduction in the local drop-out rate and because she was a “strong advocate for Christian, conservative family values and stands her ground even in the face of liberal opposition.”

The Austin American-Statesman’s article suggested that the warning to Hensley is likely to spur more efforts in the Texas Legislature to pass bills “protecting the religious freedom” of elected officials and others, including healthcare professionals, who refuse to serve someone on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, declared that his organization and other allies of equality will work to block such legislation.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but it’s not a license to discriminate,” Quinn told the Austin newspaper in response to the judicial commission’s warning to Hensley. “Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to pick and choose which taxpayers they would serve. If a government official can’t treat everyone equally under the law, then it’s time for them to find another line of work.”

— Tammye Nash