N.D. Ballot Measure Would Alter Regulation of Religious Beliefs

May 3, 2012 — A North Dakota legislative committee on Tuesday discussed a proposed ballot measure (Measure 3) that would make it more difficult for state and local governments to regulate religious practices, the AP/Bismarck Tribune reports. The measure will appear on the ballot in the June 12 primary election (Wetzel, AP/Bismarck Tribune, 5/1).

The measure 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" (Springer, Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, 5/2).

Pam Sharp, director of the state Office of Management and Budget, told the North Dakota Legislative Management Committee on Tuesday that her office could not quantify any impact on the budget from the measure.

Tom Freier -- director of the North Dakota Family Alliance and a supporter of the measure -- said the measure is intended to strengthen state residents' rights to exercise their religious beliefs, which he argued that the U.S. Supreme Court weakened in 1990 by ruling that states could regulate religious behavior as long as they did not discriminate against certain religious beliefs. The proposal would establish a tougher legal standard, requiring states to offer a compelling reason for regulating religious practices, Freier said (AP/Bismarck Tribune, 5/1).

A newly formed group that is opposing the amendment said it is vaguely worded and would open the door to excessive litigation. The group's Tom Fiebiger -- an attorney and former state senator -- said, "If Measure 3 passes, it could allow a person to take advantage and use personal religious beliefs to claim the right to break important laws that are meant to protect all of us, like laws against abuse and discrimination." For example, a person could claim immunity from domestic violence laws by saying his religion allows a husband to discipline a wife, according to Fiebiger.

The bishops of the Catholic dioceses in Bismarck and Fargo support the measure. Christopher Dodd, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the amendment would strengthen religious freedom and is similar to laws enacted in 27 other states (Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, 5/2).