N.D. Voters To Decide 'Religious Liberty' Ballot Measure

June 12, 2012 — North Dakota voters on Tuesday will decide a ballot initiative (Measure 3) that would amend the state constitution to make it more difficult for state and local governments to pass or enforce laws or regulations that indirectly impact religious practices, the Christian Science Monitor reports (Eckel, Christian Science Monitor, 6/11).

The measure states that 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, 6/4).

Opponents Warn of Potential Discrimination

Opponents of the measure -- including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of social service groups in the state -- have argued that the measure would allow for workplace discrimination on the basis of religion. Tom Fiebiger -- an attorney and former state senator -- said the measure is "a solution in search of a problem."

Fiebiger noted that the measure's vague wording could give employers leeway to fire an unmarried, pregnant woman based on religious opposition. Opponents are also concerned about other scenarios that could affect health care, such as if a pharmacist refuses to dispense HIV drugs to someone who is gay.

Proponents Cite Threats to Religious Beliefs

Tom Freier -- president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, the group that authored the amendment -- said it is intended to strengthen state residents' rights to exercise their religious beliefs.

Other proponents, including the Catholic diocese and a coalition of conservative groups, have said the measure was under way before the release of federal rules that require health plans to cover contraceptive services without copayments or deductibles. Proponents of the measure also have warned that religious freedom is increasingly in danger.

"Make no mistake, your ability to be pro-life and pro-family is being threatened, and Measure 3 is a strong defense against that threat," Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fargo said at a rally on Friday.

National Implications

Although other measures on Tuesday's ballots have drawn more local debate than Measure 3, the initiative has attracted the attention of outside groups because of its potential national implications for the November election. Issues such as access to contraception and same-sex marriage already have surfaced in the presidential election, meaning "the North Dakota vote will likely be a harbinger for a full-throated election year argument about religion in public life," according to the Monitor.

Ballot measure campaigns in North Dakota typically draw about $100,000 in spending, but groups have spent more than seven times that much on Measure 3, according to filings with the Secretary of State's office (Christian Science Monitor, 6/11).