North Dakota voters reject religious freedom measure

Voters in North Dakota have rejected, by a margin approaching to 2 to 1, a state constitutional amendment aimed at protecting religious freedom.In a backgrounder published earlier this week, The Christian Science Monitor offered a good overview of the ballot initiative:

Called the Religious Liberty Restoration amendment, the measure would add a clause to the state constitution stipulating that the government must have a compelling interest in order to burden a person whose actions or decisions are informed by religious belief and that the government should use the least restrictive means to further that interest.

Backers, which include the Roman Catholic diocese and a coalition of conservative groups in North Dakota, say the measure predates the current fight that erupted earlier this year when the Obama administration instituted new rules requiring most employers including religious charities, hospitals, and universities to provide employees cost-free access to reproductive health services ...

Tom Freier, president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, says his group first began crafting its language more than two years ago, partly in response to 1990 US Supreme Court ruling that some groups viewed as an infringement on some religious practices.

In response to the vote, the North Dakota Catholic Conference said Measure 3 went down to defeat after Planned Parenthood spent heavily to oppose it. "The massive amount of out-of-state money Planned Parenthood poured into the opposition campaign confirms that religious freedom in North Dakota is not safe and that there are well-organized and well-funded groups ready to take advantage of that situation," it said.The outcome is so lopsided, though, that I don't think the hundreds of thousands of dollars Planned Parenthood spent explains it adequately. My sense from reading the news reports from North Dakota is that voters opposed the amendment because they were uncertain over what its consequences would be. Newspaper editorials opposing the measure cited a resolution from the Western North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that expressed "grave concern" for that reason.North Dakota is about 27 to 30 percent Catholic, according to various estimates. I haven't seen any exit poll, but the wide margin of the tally makes it likely that most Catholics who voted opposed the measure.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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