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The High Plains of North Dakota.

MARLIN LEVISON, Star Tribune file

PROPOSED AMENDMENT


"Government may not burden a person's or a religious organization's religious liberty. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or exclusion from programs or access to facilities."

Editorial: A misleading push for religious liberty

  • May 24, 2012 - 8:37 PM

North Dakotans should reject the misguided, misleadingly named "Religious Liberty Restoration" measure when they vote in their state primary early next month. Instead of protecting religious freedom, the proposed state constitutional amendment -- known as "Measure 3" -- would potentially allow one person's religious beliefs to infringe on others' rights.

If it passes, the religious right and Catholic bishop-affiliated organizations in Minnesota and elsewhere might push similar self-serving measures. A handful of states already have enacted similar laws. The North Dakota measure's main champions are the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the North Dakota Family Alliance, which has ties to Focus on the Family, an organization founded by controversial social-conservative leader James Dobson.

For more than two centuries, the First Amendment to the nation's Constitution has solidly safeguarded religious freedom in the United States. State measures, such as North Dakota's, aren't just unnecessary, they're un-American. Measure 3 is nothing less than a request for preferential treatment for religious people when their beliefs conflict with new or existing laws.

"That's a problem,'' said Steven R. Morrison, a University of North Dakota School of Law professor who has written a legal analysis of Measure 3. "Our country was founded on equality and fairness. It was founded on this notion that the rule of law applies to everybody equally."

North Dakota primary voters, who will also weigh in on abolishing property taxes and the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname, might assume that Measure 3 simply safeguards against the Obama administration's controversial birth-control mandate from earlier this year.

Federal health officials declared birth control to be preventive health care, meaning that it's covered without a copay. Some Catholic organizations filed suit this week against the administration, claiming that the mandate violates their religious freedom by requiring Catholic hospitals and most other employers to provide birth-control coverage.

Measure 3's proponents began their push well before that controversial decision. The measure is also written in a "strikingly broad" fashion, according to Morrison, instead of narrowly focusing on birth control. If passed, it could give any employer the right to challenge birth control or medical procedures covered in employees' health insurance.

But the measure goes far beyond that, potentially allowing the beliefs of any religion to challenge or trump labor laws, antidiscrimination laws or zoning laws, just to name a few.

Former North Dakota District Judge James Vukelic worries that attorneys would try to use the law as a defense for criminal acts. "It's a Pandora's box,'' he said.

North Dakota is not a hotbed of religious repression. Measure 3 would not solve a problem but create problems. Peace Garden State voters need to use common sense and say no.

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