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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.

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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.

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“On first blush, it looks great, but you pull back the curtain, and you see all the problems,” Mr. Fiebiger says.  “It’s a solution in search of a problem.”

Heightened interest in all three ballot measures was reflected in a sharp increase in early and absentee ballots cast, running as of Monday, nearly double what it was in the past, according to the Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

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.

“If you look at this as a national movement, winning North Dakota is as good as winning any other state,” Mr. Jendrysik says.

At least 28 states have carved out some sort of religious exemption in health care similar to the newly enacted federal rules, though most have done it through statute, according to Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Wisconsin. Only one other state, however, has adopted a constitutional amendment similar to North Dakota’s proposal: Alabama.

“The rights that should be protected are already protected in the Constitution?” Mr. Seidel says. “What this is all about is a law seeking to impose a religion on people.”

At a rally in Fargo on Friday, Bishop Samuel Aquila, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fargo, denounced Planned Parenthood, which has spent hundreds and thousands of dollars to defeat Measure 3. The measure is simply about people being able to exercise their beliefs, he added. 

"So whether one is Catholic, or Protestant, Jew or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Mormon or Buddhist, civil law must protect their God-given rights to exercise their faith and to live their faith," he said. “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.”

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