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.

Eliza Wiley/The Independent Record/AP
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.

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. 

“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."

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.

“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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