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Backers say proposed amendment would shield N.D. religious liberty

FARGO -- Supporters of an amendment they say will protect religious liberty in North Dakota are counting down the days and counting up the signatures in hopes it will make it on the November ballot.

FARGO -- Supporters of an amendment they say will protect religious liberty in North Dakota are counting down the days and counting up the signatures in hopes it will make it on the November ballot.

They're well on their way to getting the 25,688 names necessary to put the Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment before North Dakota voters.

While North Dakota Family Alliance Executive Director Tom Freier didn't have an exact number of signatures as of Wednesday morning, he did say they still need thousands of additional signatures. They'll have to deliver them to the Secretary of State's office by next Wednesday's deadline.

The amendment to the state constitution would stipulate that the government not "burden" a person's or organization's behavior in violation of their religiously held convictions unless it has a "compelling governmental interest" in doing so.

That "burden" includes "indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities." The measure also stipulates that the government is to have "used the least restrictive means to further that interest."


Not everyone is supportive of the amendment. Concern has been expressed regarding a perceived vagueness in its language as well as the scope of the measure.

But supporters and those behind the amendment proposal worry about the potential for infringement of religious liberties on a number of fronts without such an amendment.

Among those supporters is the North Dakota Catholic Conference, which serves as the public policy voice of the two Catholic dioceses of North Dakota. Their website offers numerous examples of potential infringement, including the following:

- A school policy that prohibits "make-up" or "cosmetics," preventing Catholic students from wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday.

- A school anti-gang policy interpreted to prohibit wearing rosaries and other religious items.

- A law that would require all medical schools and training hospitals to provide abortion training.

"Really, the importance of it is, for our children and grandchildren, to protect their First Amendment right of freedom to express our personally held beliefs," Freier said.

The NDFA, associated with the conservative, pro-family group Focus on the Family, is leading the charge to bring the measure before voters.


Proponents trace the need for the amendment back to the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision in "Employment Division v. Brown."

Until then, "government could not infringe upon religious liberty unless it was furthering a compelling interest and did so by the least restrictive means," said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference. "That's the highest standard for constitutional protection."

Federal law has restored the "compelling interest" standard in some areas of the law. Supporters of the amendment believe it would fill the remaining gap for North Dakotans.

The Rev. Bob Ona, pastor of First Assembly of God in Fargo, encouraged his North Dakota congregants to sign the petition.

"The implications of what we're encouraging people to do would preserve religious freedoms, not just for one particular group but for people of all religious faiths," Ona said.

About half of the states in the U.S., including Minnesota, have something on the books that recognizes this "compelling interest" requirement, Dodson said. In some cases that recognition predates the 1990 Supreme Court decision.

The amendment does have its detractors. Jon Lindgren, president of the Red River Freethinkers, plans to fight the measure and has already had conversations with potential partners in that effort.

"The measure does not define clearly what a religious group is or what a religious belief is," Lindgren said. "And this opens the door to applying the amendment to all kinds of circumstances."


A landlord, for example, might attempt to refuse to rent an apartment to a same-gender couple based on religious beliefs. Or, in the case of a Catholic, a worker might attempt to decline serving meats besides fish on Fridays.

Lindgren doesn't believe such arguments would necessarily be successful under the amendment, but he believes "it opens the door to make the argument."

Dodson argues that numerous legal decisions define terms like "religion" and that the standard in the measure was the law of the land prior to 1990. As to the scope of the amendment, he points to the built-in limitation of "compelling interest," a standard to which anti-discrimination laws (such as those involving housing) typically apply. He also said that the amendment applies to government, not private, action unless a law is involved in the private action.

If proponents are successful in getting the measure on the ballot, Freier believes it has a "very, very good chance" of passing.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.

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