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Patrick Springer, Published May 02 2012

Religious freedom measure draws group of opponents

FARGO – A group that opposes a state constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in the June 12 primary announced its formation Wednesday.

“We all believe strongly in religious freedom, but Measure 3 is vague and confusing and just goes too far,” Tom Fiebiger, a Fargo lawyer and former state senator, said in a news release.

“This measure is so poorly written that it will open the door to endless litigation and legal wrangling, clogging our already crowded courts and costing taxpayers more of their hard-earned money,” Fiebiger added.

Measure 3 would amend Article I of the North Dakota Constitution by adding this provision:

“Government may not burden a person’s or 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 an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”

The initiative’s supporters – which include the bishops of the Catholic dioceses in Fargo and Bismarck – tout it as promoting religious freedom.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said Measure 3 would strengthen religious freedom in the state. Similar protections have been passed in 27 states, he said.

“It’s the same standard almost word for word,” Dodson said. “It’s not a Pandora’s box for litigation. It’s a well-tested method of balancing the government’s legitimate rights and the individual’s religious liberties.”

A Bismarck clergyman also announced his opposition to the amendment in the Wednesday news release from North Dakotans Against Measure 3.

“We don’t need Measure 3,” said the Rev. Wade Schemmel. “Religious freedom is already protected by the very First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in Article I, Section 3 of the North Dakota Constitution.”

“If Measure 3 passes, it could allow a person to take advantage and use personal religious beliefs to claim the right to break important laws that are meant to protect all of us, like laws against abuse and discrimination,” Fiebiger said.

As an example, a person could claim domestic violence laws don’t apply to him because his religion tells him he can discipline his wife as he sees fit, Fiebiger said.

“It’s very concerning,” Schemmel said. “This law could be manipulated and harm others, and that’s why we are opposing this Measure 3.”

Domestic violence would not be protected by Measure 3, Dodson said, because the state has a “compelling interest” in passing laws to make domestic violence illegal and to enforce laws prohibiting it.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522