North Dakota is the kind of state that often doesn’t get a lot of attention. But yesterday, voters there did something great, and they should take a minute to pat themselves on the back. The rest of America should thank them, too.
Voters faced a sweeping “religious freedom” amendment on the primary ballot. Americans United had concerns that this dangerous amendment might pass in a conservative, largely rural state. We joined forces with other groups in the state to educate voters, but we braced for the worst.
Turns out we needn’t have worried. The amendment lost – big time.
This amendment wasn’t really about religious freedom. In fact, it was a power grab by influential religious special interests in the state. The so-called “Religious Liberty Restoration Act” (Amendment 3), was engineered by the state’s Catholic hierarchy and its Religious Right allies.
These clerical special interests claimed that the constitutional change was necessary to strengthen religious liberty rights that were allegedly being placed in jeopardy. In fact, the amendment would have gone way beyond that. It would have endangered the rights of citizens of the state in various ways, possible curtailing access to vital health services, shooting down the rights of LGBT residents and infringing on the rights of all North Dakota taxpayers by compelling the state to give public support to religious groups.
The fact is, Amendment 3 was so broadly worded we weren’t sure what it would do – except we knew for certain that it would stir up a lot of mischief and spark numerous court battles. North Dakota voters decided not to take the risk. They didn’t just defeat Amendment 3, they trounced it. The vote was 64 percent against to 36 percent for.
These results are even more remarkable when you consider that North Dakota’s political leaders placed the amendment on the June ballot deliberately, believing that would help it pass. They knew that more conservative voters tend to turn out in primary elections, and, since many Democratic races weren’t contested, they expected that Election Day would draw a heavy Republican turnout.
But even conservatives, it seems, weren’t willing to rubber stamp this monstrosity. They realized that giving people a near-ironclad right to trump secular law because of their religious beliefs would open a Pandora’s box. They nailed that box firmly shut.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about religious freedom and what it means. The Catholic bishops insist that they have a religious freedom right to restrict Americans’ access to birth control and other necessary services – even when the institutions in question receive massive taxpayer subsidies and hire and serve plenty of non-Catholics.
The bishops, often backed by their Religious Right allies, go even further by insisting that even private employers should have the right to tailor their employees’ health care according to the employer’s sectarian ideology. So if you work in a restaurant and your supervisor happens to be Catholic, he can deny you access to birth control through the health care plan simply because he doesn’t like it.
Recent polls have shown that Americans are highly skeptical of policies like this, and yesterday’s vote show that they won’t fly even in a conservative state like North Dakota.
It was a nice win, but there’s more work to be done. A similarly dangerous ballot amendment on “religious freedom” is pending in Missouri in August, and Florida faces a sweeping attempt to water down its church-state provisions in November.
Let’s hope voters in both states decide to follow the example of the wise folks in North Dakota.
P.S. The scope of groups that opposed this measure was truly impressive, and AU was proud to work alongside them. They included the North Dakota Women’s Network, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, the National Association of Social Workers North Dakota Chapter, the North Dakota Western Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America and others. See more here.