National Partnership for Women & Families

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Groups Say N.D. 'Religious Liberty' Ballot Measure Could Harm Vulnerable Populations

Groups Say N.D. 'Religious Liberty' Ballot Measure Could Harm Vulnerable Populations

June 4, 2012 — Some not-for-profit organizations in North Dakota have joined together against a ballot initiative (Measure 3) they say could harm vulnerable populations in the state, including abused women and children, KFYR reports (Roose, KFYR, 5/31).

Measure 3, which will appear on the ballot in the June 12 primary election, states that the government "may not burden a person's or religious organization's religious liberty." It adds, "The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities" (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/3).

Critics of the measure said it is unclear what will be considered "compelling interest." Renee Stromme of the North Dakota Women's Network said the state "would have to prove its case each and every time someone takes advantage of the law, ... [g]iving those who take advantage of the law the upper hand."

Opponents of the proposal also have raised concern about domestic abuse and whether a pregnant, unmarried woman could be fired because of her employer's religious beliefs about her status.

Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, said the proposal would "seriously undercut protection for child[ren] in our state ... [b]y opening the door for people to claim religious freedom, for a justification for maltreatment."

Supporters of the law said the state would always have a compelling interest in child abuse cases. The measure includes "language to protect from that," as does the state's constitution, according to Christopher Dodson of the North Dakota Catholic Conference (KFYR, 5/31).