Religious Liberty
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2003

In this respect, North Dakota follows the experiences of other states. Challenges to the autonomy and integrity of religious organizations seems to be the host issue around the country.

Quick. What do these bills introduced in the North Dakota legislature have in common?

•A bill requiring insurance coverage of contraception and infertility treatments;

•A bill restricting telemarketing;

•A bill allowing the attorney general to review and approve sales of nonprofit hospitals;

•A bill on teacher certification requirements;

•A bill to prevent harassment at a workplace.

Answer: They are some of the bills introduced so far that could infringe upon the exercise of religious liberty.

The legislators who introduced these bills did not intend that result. Indeed, most observers would not immediately recognize the problems. After all, what does restricting those pesky telemarketers have to do with religious freedom?

Imagine if the state required every church to pay a fee to the state before it could collect the weekly offertory and then prohibited the ushers from passing the basket to certain worshipers. Imagine also that the state told the pastor when and how it could ask for an offering. Finally, imagine that state law exempted churches from these requirements only the churches agreed to use only certain persons for ushers.

This may sound like an extreme case of interference with the free exercise of religion, but the telemarketing “no-call” legislation is not very different. The bill, as introduced, puts restrictions on when and how a church can communicate with its own adherents. In addition, it requires churches to buy a “no-call” list from the state - for up to $800 - unless they limit themselves to certain methods of communication.

Most people want to do something about annoying telemarketing calls. However, in our zest to address a legitimate problem, our perceptions can get clouded and we risk trampling on some fundamental rights. Even worse, some legislators seem willing to knowingly tolerate such infringements in order to achieve the bill’s other purpose.

We run the same risk with teacher certification. Most people want assurances that all of our teachers are qualified. For that reason, North Dakota requires both public and nonpublic school teachers to meet the same licensing standards. Those standards will have to change in response to the new No Child Left Behind Act. That act, passed by Congress and signed by the President, expressly applies only to public school teachers. Nevertheless, since the standards for the states public school teachers must change, the changes will also apply to nonpublic school teachers. If the proposed standards were for legitimate reasons to ensure quality, that might not be a problem. In this case, however, the changes are solely in response to the federal law. This sets a dangerous precedent. Nonpublic, especially religious, schools should not be subject to regulations unrelated to legitimate state needs.

Challenges to the autonomy and integrity of religious organizations are occurring all around the country. The cover a variety of issues including adoptions, health care, cemeteries, fund raising, schools, building projects, insurance, and taxes. We like to think that North Dakotans, with their high church attendance and affiliation rate, is immune from such efforts. We are not. If we are not vigilant, we could lose one of most fundamental freedoms.

Please note that by the time this column is published, some of the bills mentioned may have been defeated or greatly amended. I suggest you contact the North Dakota Catholic Conference office to find out the current status of legislation before taking any action.