“Well, you know, it is North Dakota.”
That is my typical response whenever I see or hear about an absurdity in our neighbor state and do not feel like justifying it (which occurs at least weekly). The latest absurdities—proposed amendments to the state’s constitution—are mind-boggling and worthy enough for me to sit down and write about them.
Earlier this week, I attended an event at North Dakota State University called Politics on the Plains. This event featured two candidates for the state’s legislature, a Fargo City Commission candidate, social science faculty and several other local leaders affiliated with various non-profits. At the event, I learned quite a bit about North Dakota politics, including Measure 2 and Measure 3: two of four ludicrous proposed referenda that will be coming to a ballot box near you this June.
Measure 2, the North Dakota Property Tax Amendment, is the more well known of the two and would eliminate all property taxes throughout the state. With the elimination of property taxes, the amendment would require local municipalities to go to the state legislature whenever they need, say, a bridge repair or more funds for their schools. Keep in mind, North Dakota’s legislature meets once every other year and most local structural improvements are funded by property taxes. As a result, this amendment would disproportionally affect rural communities that are unable to use funds locally for structural improvements.
However, North Dakota is not hurting for cash, and many people (at least 25,000, the number of signatures required for an amendment to appear on the ballot) believe they are throwing their money away by paying property taxes.
Yet, clearly people from both sides of the political aisle recognize the absurdity of Measure 2. Andy Peterson, the president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, has called the amendment “an extremist measure.”
Next up is Measure 3, or the Religious Freedom Amendment.
The referendum appears on the ballot in the following form:
“Government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious liberty. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”
The vagueness of “sincerely held religious beliefs” is very troubling. Walk into a pharmacy with a birth control prescription from your family physician and the pharmacist can simply say, meh, I can’t help you out because it is against my religion; it is a burden. Or, for example, a gay couple in need can be refused food or assistance at a shelter, just because homosexuality goes against the religious beliefs of a person in power at the shelter.
Statewide, Catholics and affiliated family alliances have rallied behind the proposed amendment. One of the main supporters of Measure 3 is Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Diocese of Fargo. Neither the Bishop’s Office nor the North Dakota Family Alliance (NDFA) immediately responded to a request for comment for this piece.
According to the NDFA blog, the urgency for passing the amendment this year is because of contraceptives.
“We can’t wait,” Tom Freier, Executive Director of the NDFA, writes “As we see an administration…by government mandate, forcing religious organizations to provide contraceptives, sterilization drugs, and abortifacients in violation of sincerely held religious beliefs. These attacks are on our religious liberty. We need protection, and we need it now.”
I’m not sure how Freier connects the dots, yet one thing is clear: North Dakotan conservative religious groups are using fear to bring people to the ballot box to support an unnecessary amendment that would undoubtedly hurt more people than it would help.
Just imagine if these groups used the same amount of energy to focus on real problems in the state, such as the approximately 1,000 Fargoans that stay in local shelters each night. From focusing on housing to health, it seems nearly anything is more fruitful than a rights-infringing constitutional amendment.