Half-way Point
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2006

We have reached a halfway point. The last North Dakota Legislative Assembly met a year ago and the next legislative session will convene in January 2007. Now is a good time to take a look at what has happened with some of the laws passed in the 2005 session.

Most state laws do not take effect until the first August 1 after the session. Some laws, such as unambiguous criminal statutes, take effect on that date with no delay. However, sometimes it takes awhile for agencies to launch new programs. Other laws must wait for rules or legal interpretations before they are fully implemented. Assessing how legislation is carried out is just as important as watching how legislation is enacted. Here is a look at what has happened with some of the bills passed last session.

Senate Bill 2409 created a program to give financial assistance to private organizations that provide alternatives-to-abortion services. The state Department of Human Services has the responsibility for implementing the program. The department reached out to faith-based and community organizations and sought their help with designing the program. All participating agencies had to agree not to counsel or refer for abortion and not to knowingly refer a client to another place for those services. Pursuant to the federal rules for faith-based charitable entities, the centers are not required to change their religious identity to participate in the program, but they cannot be reimbursed for activities that include worship, religious education, or proselytizing.

The program started in January. Preliminary reports show that about 70 women were provided pro-life alternatives to abortion during the program’s first month. So far, this initiative appears to be off on a good start.

On another matter, the legislature directed an interim committee to study the state’s marriage laws and methods for strengthening marriage. More specifically, the committee is to:

“Study the state's marriage laws and methods for strengthening the institution of marriage in the state, including premarital requirements, such as marital education and counseling, waiting periods, and marital blood tests; the availability of marriage counseling and parenting education in the state; and the implementation of predivorce requirements, such as divorce-effects education.”

Admittedly, that is a tall order, but the strength of marriage often results from the combination of many factors. Unfortunately, it looks like the committee has accomplished very little. According to the minutes for the committee’s only two meetings, most of the discussion so far has focused on the cost of a marriage license.

The lack of activity by the committee might be intentional on the part of some committee members. Some legislators appear to either not understand or not accept the importance of marriage as a social institution – which would justify the state’s interest in how laws and government programs strengthen or weaken marriage. To them, marriage is merely a private contract and the state has a limited, if any, role in the matter. This view certainly does not reflect the view of most North Dakotans and can dire consequences for society, especially our children.

The committee plans at least one more meeting before next session. Let us hope that it takes the initiative to give marriage the serious consideration it warrants.

As many other states have done, the 2005 Legislative Assembly authorized the creation of an Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within the governor’s office. The office would act as an ombudsman to facilitate and further the involvement of faith-based and community organizations in providing social services. The legislation also created an advisory commission for the project. Governor Hoeven appointed commission members last July. The commission did not meet, however, until the last week of February – a full eight months later.

When it did meet, commissioners discovered that none of the members held leadership positions in their respective churches. Nevertheless, the commissioners appear to want to reach out to faith-based and other nonprofit organizations and sponsor an informational conference in the near future.

One law that went into effect on August 1 and did not need to wait for work from a government agency was the revision to the state’s laws on living wills and durable powers of attorney for health care. The old statutes were combined, authorizing the creation of a “health care directive.” The new law also clarified that people did not need to use the example form contained in the statute.

Although the new law did not need action by a government agency, it does need a public education effort. Work began almost immediately on a guide to the new law that could be widely distributed across the state. Interested persons developed a draft of such a guide last fall, but the guide is still not published.

Some, like the state’s Catholic bishops working through the North Dakota Catholic Conference, have gone ahead and published their own guides. The Catholic health care directive and guide has proven very popular. If you do not have it, check out the conference’s web site at: ndcatholic.org/CHD/