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Published June 06 2012

Forum editorial: Measure 3 threatens ND liberty

North Dakota Measure 3 on Tuesday’s ballot is, at its core, an attempted ecclesiastical mugging of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the North Dakota religious freedom guarantee in Article I, Section 3 of the state constitution. The measure is a badly drawn invitation to endless litigation. It’s a dangerous solution in search of a nonexistent problem.

The state measure appears to be part of a national agenda of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. In North Dakota, prominent Catholic leaders and the state’s major Catholic organization are among the supporters, but there are others. The irony is that groups and individuals who say they want government out of their lives are backing a constitutional amendment that would open the door to more government intrusion in the form of the courts and likely legislative action precipitated by litigation.

Proponents of the measure insist the language is clear and ironclad. But respected lawyers and retired jurists who have analyzed the language disagree. They have concluded the measure is so vague and so broad that it opens the door wide to individual and organizational interpretations of “religious liberty” that would result in dire consequences.

There are, after all, “religious” practices that run up against legal sanctions and other government interests. The measure says government may not “burden” religious liberty but does not define burden or call for reasonable exceptions, as do religious liberty amendments in other states. The measure also directs government to use “least restrictive means” to further a government interest that might be in conflict with religious practice. That provision certainly would have an effect on the application of secular laws, such as prohibitions on child abuse, domestic violence and even zoning regulations. But again, the phrase “least restrictive means” is left to be defined (in how many different ways?) by courts and lawyers.

When pressed to cite one – just one – example of denied or even attenuated religious liberty in North Dakota, measure supporters come up empty. There are few states where religious liberty is practiced as openly and frequently as North Dakota. Churches and religious-based organizations do vital and excellent work every day in adoption, refugee resettlement, missions, health care, community service and faith-based education. The spiritual lives of North Dakotans who chose a spiritual life – as most do – are sound and secure.

Measure 3 threatens that honorable heritage and history. It’s a self-serving scheme that has the potential to deeply divide people of faith, and thus undermine religious liberty, not protect it. Vote “no.”

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.