The North Dakota Catholic Conference is among the backers of a religious freedom measure on North Dakota’s June 12 ballot intended to restore religious freedom protections absent for two decades.
“The status quo in itself is unacceptable. It’s just a matter of time before religious freedoms are impacted if we don’t fix the law,” Catholic conference executive director Christopher Dodson told EWTN News June 4.
“Right now we’re just vulnerable,” he said. “Measure 3 restores religious liberty for North Dakota law.”
Measure 3 would require the presence of a “compelling governmental interest” before the state could burden an individual or a religious organization’s religious liberty. It would also obligate state and local governments to use the “least restrictive means” to advance that interest.
The measure defines the withholding of benefits, the assessment of penalties, or exclusion from programs or access to facilities as a burden on liberty.
“Measure 3 is needed, it’s well-tested, and its safe,” Dodson said. “The experts agree on that and religious liberty demands that protection.”
He explained that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in 1990 that “lowered religious liberty protections” and shifted to individual states the burden of ensuring stronger protections in their own laws.
He said that conscience protections are “on shaky ground” in North Dakota law. The proposed measure would protect against conscience violations and against other requirements, such as mandatory insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations.
A North Dakota school district has also talked about banning students from wearing rosaries and other religious items.
Dodson said that there have not yet been major religious freedom issues in the state, but he is concerned by Planned Parenthood’s involvement against the bill.
He suspects the leaders of the largest U.S. abortion provider “have got their crosshairs on our crisis pregnancy centers” and could propose local laws that would shut them down if the measure does not pass.
Planned Parenthood has spent over $500,000 opposing Measure 3, while the proposal’s backers have spent only about $100,000.
Opponents have charged that the measure will allow people to use religious liberty to evade government action against child abuse and child marriage, as well as intervention in cases of spousal abuse and refusal of emergency care.
Dodson said these claims are “scare tactics” and the scenarios would be countered by the provision allowing state action where there is a “compelling governmental interest.”
“Most states already have this standard, and they haven’t had these problems,” Dodson said.
A May 31 letter to the North Dakota Legislative Council from various legal scholars endorsed the religious freedom measure. The letter said the provisions would not apply to many cases, but “those few cases are often of intense importance to the people affected.
“We should not punish a person for practicing his religion unless we have a very good reason,” said the letter, whose signers included former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, Notre Dame Law School professor Richard W. Garnett, and scholars from prestigious schools such as Princeton University and Stanford Law School.
Other Measure 3 backers include the North Dakota Family Alliance and individuals of a variety of faiths and political views. Over 25,000 citizens signed petitions to place it on the ballot.
Dodson said that Catholic support for the measure is motivated not only by threats to their own religious liberties, but by the need to protect religious liberty in general, which was stressed in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.