September 2012 Church & State | Featured

It was a “good news/bad news” kind of summer for Americans United. Two states held votes on constitutional amendments designed to weaken church-state separation, resulting in a split decision: One failed and one passed.

First, the good news: North Dakota voters June 12 rejected a sweeping “religious freedom” amendment. Am­er­icans United had concerns that this dangerous amendment might pass in a conservative, largely rural state – especially since it was on a primary ballot, which was expected to draw a light turnout.

But Election Day brought a surprise: Measure 3 lost by a comfortable margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.

Although described as a “religious freedom” provision, the amendment really wasn’t about that. In fact, it was a power grab by influential religious special interests in the state. Dubbed the “Religious Liberty Res­toration Act,” the amendment was engineered by the state’s Roman Catholic hierarchy and its Religious Right allies. (See “Deception In North Dakota,” March 2012 Church & State.)

These special interests claimed that the constitutional change was necessary to strengthen religious liberty rights that were allegedly being placed in jeopardy.

Americans United and its allies in the state pointed out that Measure 3 would have gone far beyond that. It would have endangered the rights of citizens in various ways, possibly 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 funding to religious groups.

AU also pointed out that the amendment was so broadly worded no one was sure what it would do – except that it would stir up a lot of mischief and spark numerous court battles.

Americans United worked alongside a broad coalition of state and national groups to oppose the measure. They included Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, 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.

The media also played a role. The five leading daily newspapers in the state editorialized against Amendment 3.

Unfortunately, an Aug. 7 vote in Missouri on a constitutional change that purports to protect prayer in public places brought a much different result. Amendment 2 passed easily, 83 percent to 17 percent.

The amendment, which was endorsed by the state’s Catholic hierarchy and Religious Right groups, revises Article I, Section 5 of the Missouri Constitution.

The new language says state and local governments have the right to open meetings with clergy-led prayer and guarantees students in public schools “their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive….”

In perhaps its most controversial section, the amendment grants public school students the right to refuse “to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”  It also allows students to “express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.”

Americans United pointed out that language this sweeping is bound to spark problems in public schools, with some students refusing to study evolution or read required textbooks.

AU and its allies worked to spread the word about the dangers of Amendment 2, but voters were apparently swayed by a misleading ballot description that made the proposal sound positive.

Now that the amendment is part of the Missouri Constitution, Americans United plans to make sure it is not used to violate rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex  J. Luchenitser told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “This is going to be a nightmare for school districts, which will end up getting sued by individuals on both sides of church-state debate. This is the most far-out constitutional amendment we’ve seen in the church-state area.”