Session Shows Need for Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The North Dakota Catholic Conference supports putting a Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment in the state constitution. The amendment would restore basic protections for religious liberty that were removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. Congress restored protection for the purposes of federal law, but states must act to protect religious liberties from state laws.
While gathering signatures for the amendment petition, I was often asked whether a problem existed in North Dakota. Thankfully, religious freedom is under less attack in North Dakota compared to some other states. Nevertheless, infringements do occur in North Dakota. Sometimes these infringements happen without any hostility toward religion. Religious beliefs and practices come in a variety of forms. Not surprisingly, legislators are not always aware how a particular bill will impact the religious rights of someone.
One of the benefits of a religious liberty restoration amendment is that it makes legislating easier in a religiously plural society. Legislators would not have to foresee the impact of a bill on a every type of religious believer. Lobbyists for religious groups would not have to review the hundreds of bills introduced each session and seek necessary exemptions.
The 2011 legislative session provides an example. The North Dakota Catholic Conference had to seek exemptions in several bills - exemptions that would not have been needed if the state had a Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment.
House Bill 1165 prohibits a person or organization from requiring that an individual have health insurance. The conference had no position on the underlying issue in the bill, but it did seek and receive an exemption for religious entities. It is not uncommon for religious communities and dioceses to require members or priests to have health insurance since the care of those people ultimately falls to the community. Without insurance the religious entity might end up with an unnecessarily costly expense.
House Bill 1438 prohibits property owners from having policies restricting the possession of firearms on their property. The conference does not have a position on the underlying issue. Religious entities, however, should be able to enact policies consistent with their principles and beliefs. If a religious body opposes all firearms - and some do - they should be able to enact policies consistent with that belief. Here again, an exemption for religious entities - which was not provided - would not have been necessary if we had a Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment.
Senate Bill 2066 amended an existing law which already raised constitutional questions. The bill allows political signs to be posted near state highways. The existing law also allows certain commercial signs to be posted. By implication, signs with religious speech are not allowed. The existing law and SB 2066 are unconstitutional. It is well-established that government bodies cannot give preference to commercial speech over noncommercial speech, including religious speech. Nor can they give preference to one type of commercial speech (political) over another type of commercial speech (religious). Although the law is, on its face, unconstitutional, we hope that the Department of Transportation will correctly apply the judicial decisions and allow religious signs.
These are just some bills from this session implicating religious liberty questions. They may not seem like big issues to some, but any undue restriction on religious liberty should be taken seriously.
Supporters of a Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment are still gathering signatures before the May deadline. The new census data increased the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. If you have not signed or think you can still get some additional signatures, contact the North Dakota Catholic Conference. Find out more about the amendment at: http://ndcatholic.org/rlra/.