by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
In Catholic teaching, religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Freedom to act privately and publicly according to one’s conscience and religious beliefs is part of what it means to be truly human. The dignity of the person requires that “all men and women should be free from every constraint in the area of religion.” This right extends to communities and institutions, which by their very nature consist of and for individual persons.
The church also teaches that governments must recognize religious liberty as a fundamental legal right. Do federal and state laws recognize religious liberty as a fundamental right?
Before 1990 that question was easy to answer. For most of our history, government infringement upon sincere religious belief was subject to the highest level of judicial review. If a law burdened a person’s religious beliefs, the government was required to justify the infringement with a compelling governmental interest and then show that it had adopted the least restrictive means of advancing that interest. This standard is called “strict scrutiny” or the “compelling interest” standard. It is the highest level of protection our Constitution provides for the protection of rights.
In 1990, however, the Supreme Court held that this standard did not apply where a person challenged neutral and otherwise valid laws of general applicability—that is, laws that were not intended to restrict religious freedom. Because most laws that infringe upon religious liberty do not explicitly target religion, this decision significantly eroded religious protections in the country.
The Supreme Court, however, left a door open by allowing Congress and the states to enact greater protections. Supporters of religious liberty immediately asked for protection from Congress. Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. The law restored the strict scrutiny standard and was meant to apply to all laws federal, state, and local laws. The Supreme Court, however, later ruled that the way Congress had written the law made the law applicable only to federal laws, not state laws.
Congress tried again, but this time made the law applicable only to some state land use laws and policies affecting inmates and institutionalized patients (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.) Restoring the strict scrutiny standard for state laws was left to the states. About half of the states have restored the strict scrutiny standard by legislative enactment or court decisions. Now comes North Dakota’s turn.
Bishop Paul A. Zipfel and Bishop Samuel J. Aquila have joined a coalition of religious and civic leaders to place a religious liberty restoration amendment in the North Dakota state constitution. The amendment would restore the strict scrutiny standard for laws that burden the exercise of religious liberty. At a time when religious liberty is increasingly devalued or attacked, passage of this amendment is crucial to preserving a fundamental freedom.
To qualify for the November ballot, supporters of religious liberty must gather 25,688 signatures. You can help by:
Volunteering to gathering signatures at your parish
All the materials needed to circulate petitions can be downloaded at: http://ndcatholic.org/rlra/. Please do what you can to protect religious liberty in North Dakota.