N. Dakota 'Religious Liberty' Measure Sparks Debate

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Next week, North Dakota voters will decide whether to add an amendment to the state's constitution that supporters say will guarantee religious freedom. But the ballot measure has prompted debate over precisely what it safeguards; opponents argue that it's a solution in search of a problem and worry about its consequences.

Measure 3 is worded this way: "Government may not burden a person's or religious organization's religious liberty." Its supporters call it the Religious Liberty Restoration amendment; they say it's needed because of a 22-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision they believe has put limits on religious freedom.

"What this amendment is attempting to do is to restore that level of protection to what it was pre-1990," says Tom Freier, who heads the North Dakota Family Alliance. The group led the effort to put the measure on the ballot.

Freier says that making Measure 3 part of the constitution would give it permanence and help prevent attacks on religious freedom.

"So, the analogy would be: We live in Fargo, and most recently in Bismarck and in Minot, you've had floods. And you want to prepare for that. You don't know exactly when or how things are going to happen, but you want to make preparation," he says. "This measure would really put in place the protection for North Dakota that would make sure that people are protected, and religious organizations are protected, when and if they do need that protection."

But the measure's opponents worry about unintended consequences. They say it could allow parents who abuse children to hide behind the curtain of religious liberty. One opponent is Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota.

"We are urging a 'no' vote on Measure 3," he says, "because it will seriously undercut protection for children in our state by opening the door for people to claim religious freedom as a justification for maltreatment."

Renee Stromme of the North Dakota Women's Network agrees, saying if it passes, Measure 3 could also lead to discrimination.

"An employer could use religious beliefs to fire a pregnant woman because she is unmarried," Stromme says. "So let's think that through: We now have a single mother, unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, to care for the welfare of her family — and her employer would have a protected defense for his action. And a judge would have to determine otherwise."

But Measure 3 supporters like Christopher Dodson, who heads the North Dakota Catholic Conference, say those claims are unfounded.

"The measure itself says that it doesn't affect those acts which the state has a compelling interest in preventing," he says. "And it's somewhat irresponsible to even imply that the state doesn't have an interest in protecting children, women and vulnerable persons."

North Dakota's Legislative Council, the state Legislature's research arm, agrees with that assessment. Still, opponents argue the measure is both unnecessary and potentially dangerous — and could raise new ways for people to define their own extreme religious views.

Gladys Cairns, the former administrator of North Dakota Child Protective Services, says she worries that criminals will hide behind a religious cloak.

"If I were a defense attorney, I'd be making sure that my client would be doing that," she says.

Recent polls point to a close vote. Both sides are running a number of radio and television ads between now and the June 12 election.

Copyright 2012 Prairie Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/.

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