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To: House Human Services
From: Christopher Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: Senate Bill 2139 - Final Disposition of Indigent Persons
Date: March 21, 2023

The North Dakota Catholic Conference supports Senate Bill 2139 in its present form and opposes any amendments that would not allow for the accommodation of religious beliefs with regard to final disposition. We have no position on the appropriation or reimbursement amount for final disposition.

People do not lose their religious rights because they are poor. Those religious rights extend to their final disposition. As stated in earlier testimony, some people have sincere religious beliefs regarding final disposition.

The state has an obligation to respect those rights. Keep in mind this is a state act. The state rightly provides for the final disposition of indigents, but as with all state acts the action cannot infringe upon a person’s religious beliefs.

The state can establish a presumption of cremation, but it should not require cremation in every case, without any exceptions for religious beliefs.

Indeed, the House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 1136, which stated that the state cannot substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless applying the burden to that person's exercise of religion in a particular situation is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. If the accommodation for religious beliefs currently within SB 2139 is removed, it would fail that test.

Even if House Bill 1136 is not enacted, the absence of any provision for religious beliefs could still lead to legal challenges. It would certainly make matters more difficult for the human service zones.

It should be noted that SB 2139 actually limits burial requests. Currently, a burial can be requested for any reason. This version of the bill limits it to religious reasons.

This bill is primarily about the reimbursement rate for final dispositions. Reimbursement rates are negotiable. The religious rights of the poor are not.

Although we have no position on the rate or the process set out in the bill, we support the current bill's provisions for the request and accommodation of religious beliefs. If those provisions are removed, the North Dakota Catholic Conference would oppose SB 2139.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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