- Posted June 11, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
North Dakota Voters to Take On "War on Religion"
In a little ballyhooed public initiative, voters in North Dakota will decide the fate of Measure 3 on Tuesday. Altogether there are 4 initiatives up for an up or down thumb from the electorate.
What makes this othewise uneventful, run-of-the-mill election special is that Measure 3 could have implications nationwide and have a rehash in this year's presidential election.
Measure 3, a North Dakota ballot initiative set for Tuesday, would demand that the government have a 'compelling interest' before it puts a 'burden' on people following religious beliefs. Critics call it an answer to a nonexistent problem.
By all accounts, spring elections in North Dakota are usually sleepy affairs: maybe a couple local ballot initiatives or a handful of city council or school board races. Not this year, though.
Voters across the state weigh in on four ballot initiatives on Tuesday. While most of the radio chatter and letters to the editor have concerned a property tax initiative or the question of changing the logo of the University of North Dakota, it's the 83-word amendment known as Measure 3 that is turning into a flashpoint with national implications heading into November elections.
North Dakota's Measure 3 has galvanized religious groups, human service organizations, and civil rights lawyers, turning the vote from a local issue into a noteworthy skirmish in the larger national clash over religion, the government, and civic life.
Called the Religious Liberty Restoration amendment, the measure would add a clause to the state constitution stipulating that the government must have a “compelling interest” in order to “burden” a person whose actions or decisions are informed by religious belief and that the government should use the “least restrictive means to further that interest.”
Backers, which include the Roman Catholic diocese and a coalition of conservative groups in North Dakota, say the measure predates the current fight that erupted earlier this year when the Obama administration instituted new rules requiring most employers – including religious charities, hospitals, and universities – to provide employees cost-free access to reproductive health services. Conservative social organizations and national Republican strategists have seized on those rules as a way to rally opposition to President Obama’s reelection bid.
Tom Freier, president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, says his group first began crafting its language more than two years ago, partly in response to 1990 US Supreme Court ruling that some groups viewed as an infringement on some religious practices.
“It’s like flood protection: Are you going to wait until the flood to get the protection? There are situations, maybe they’re not as great as in some other places, but they are needed and the time to do it is right now,” he says.
Opponents, however, which include Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and an array of local social service organizations, have called the measure an attempt to codify workplace discrimination on the basis of religion. The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead newspaper termed the amendment, "an attempted ecclesiastical mugging."
Tom Fiebiger, a Fargo labor lawyer and former Democratic state senator, says the measure is vague and poorly written, and could open the door, for example, for an employer to fire an unmarried, pregnant woman, should that be contrary to the employer’s moral or religious beliefs. Doctor could refuse blood transfusions in an emergency room or a pharmacist could refuse to prescribe life-saving HIV drugs to a gay man if homosexuality were viewed as objectionable, opponents say.
But real evidence that this rural state of 600,000 has been sucked into the swirl over religion and public life can be found in the amount of money that has poured in in recent weeks. If the fight over a typical ballot question costs at most $100,000, the Measure 3 campaign is running more than seven times as much, according to filings with Secretary of State office. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this amount of money put into a measure,” Mr. Freier says.
The result has been a crescendo of ads that have crowded television screens and radio waves from Fargo to Bismarck in a way not seen in years. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney already sparring over issues like same-sex marriage and access to contraception, the North Dakota vote will likely be a harbinger for a full-throated election year argument about religion in public life.
From the Cornfield, could we see a preview in North Dakota tomorrow of a similar argument played out between Democrats and Republicans as they jostle for control of the White House?