N.D. proposal aims to lift 'burdens' off religionA proposed North Dakota constitutional amendment would strengthen religious freedoms in the state two decades after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling weakened them, the proposal's supporters say.
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A proposed North Dakota constitutional amendment would strengthen religious freedoms in the state two decades after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling weakened them, the proposal's supporters say.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger said Thursday he is reviewing the ballot initiative to amend the constitution. Once the petition is approved for circulation, it will need signatures from almost 26,000 North Dakota voters to be eligible for the November general election ballot.
The measure says a person's right “to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest” in regulating the behavior.
“A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities,” the measure's text says.
Religious activists in Colorado are attempting to put a similar constitutional amendment on the ballot there this fall.
Tom Freier, director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, a conservative Christian organization based in Fargo, is chairman of the initiative campaign. Five state legislators, the mayor of Williston, and the bishops of the Roman Catholic dioceses in Fargo and Bismarck are among the proposal's sponsors.
Under the amendment's terms, North Dakota lawmakers still could impose restrictions on religious behavior, Freier said. However, they would have to show a compelling interest for doing so, and that it was being done in the least restrictive manner possible, he said.
Christopher Dodson, an attorney who is director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the amendment could apply if a Muslim student's desire to wear a head scarf in class ran afoul of a school district's headgear rules, or if an orthodox Jewish basketball player was barred from wearing a yarmulke while playing because of concerns that it would be knocked off.
“It makes government take the extra step to find a reasonable accommodation,” Dodson said. “It doesn't take away the government's right to regulate. They just can't do it for willy-nilly reasons.”
Freier said the proposed amendment was necessitated by an April 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that concluded a general state law that affected religious practices was constitutional, as long as the law was neutral toward religion.
In the case, the high court ruled two American Indian men who worked as drug counselors in Oregon could be denied unemployment benefits after they were fired for eating peyote as part of Native American Church religious ceremonies.
The decision has made it easier for state authorities to regulate religion as long as the rules don't target religious practices, Freier said. The amendment would make regulation more difficult by requiring that the state provide compelling reasons for them, he said.
Freier couldn't provide any North Dakota examples of state intrusion upon religious beliefs.
“What we're looking at here is, really, proactively putting something in place,” he said.
Dodson said about 15 states have approved laws to protect religious liberty since the Supreme Court ruling.