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War on religion? North Dakota Measure 3 aims to strike back.

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 Mike EckelStaff writer / June 11, 2012

Republicans protest outside of Sen. Max Baucus's office on Friday in a national protest organized by religious groups opposing a proposed rule by the Obama administration to require employee health plans to offer free contraception and other reproductive health services. The controversial rule has become an issue in the campaign for Measure 3 in neighboring North Dakota.

Eliza Wiley/The Independent Record/AP

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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.

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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. 

“It’s very easy to get something on the ballot in North Dakota, so I think a lot of groups say: ‘This is a good place, you get a good bang for your buck here.’ And then you get your national attention,” says Mark Stephen Jendrysik, a political scientist at the University of North Dakota, the state’s flagship university.

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."

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