Message from North Dakota voters on religion has national implications

Sarah Stoesz
Sarah Stoesz

The rejection in North Dakota of a sports nickname, Fighting Sioux, has received most of the attention. But it was a ballot issue involving religion that has national implications.

On Tuesday, North Dakotans resoundingly defeated Measure 3, the so-called Religious Liberation Restoration amendment, despite the fact that the measure had the support of the Catholic Church and evangelical leaders in the state.

The rejection of the measure by a 64 to 35 percent vote matters far beyond North Dakota, according to Sarah Stoesz,  president of Planned Parenthood in Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

Stoesz believes that the vote should show politicians across the country that some of the loudest church organizations and leaders are not reflecting the views of their followers.

‘A red herring’

“The idea that religion is under attack is a red herring,” Stoesz said. “Politicians should not be afraid to stand up to those making the charges.”

It should be noted that supporters of Measure 3 blame Planned Parenthood — and “its million-dollar war chest” — for buying the vote in North Dakota.

Among other things, the charge that Planned Parenthood and its allies bought the victory shows that there’s at least one similarity between conservatives and progressives: They don’t lose; they’re just outspent.

It was only a few days ago that Wisconsin progressives were blaming their loss in the effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker on being outspent. Now, in North Dakota, conservatives have found the same villain.

Measure 3, created by the Religious Liberty Restoration Committee, was presented as something that would shore up religious freedom in North Dakota.

“Government may not burden a person’s religious organization’s religious liberty,” the measure read in part. “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.”

The Obama administration’s requirement that employee health plans offer free contraceptive and reproductive health services became Example No. 1 for proponents of the measure in explaining why religious people in North Dakota needed the protection of the measure.

Obamacare and Planned Parenthood were the demons in this battle.

But those twin “devils” had a lot of allies. Newspapers across the state and respected political leaders said the measure could create a costly mess in the courts and chaos in places ranging from family rooms to emergency rooms.

With Measure 3 in the North Dakota Constitution, could a health care worker refuse to care for someone with AIDS?  Could a man, who had beaten his wife, claim that the beating was done in the name of God?

Teacher’s story possible factor

As it happened, a front-page story in the Fargo Forum on the Saturday before Election Day seemed to show indirectly what happens when religion and profession get too tightly tied.

The story of Trish Cameron, the Moorhead teacher who was not rehired by St. Joseph’s Catholic School after telling administrators that she didn’t always personally believe in the tenets of the church. For example, she said, she supports the ideas of gays marrying. But she also made it clear that she never brought those beliefs into her fifth-grade classroom.

Cameron, who had taught at the school for 11 years, was fired for holding those beliefs.

Stoesz said she can’t say for certain that the story, which got huge play across the state, was a factor come Election Day, but it is an example of  the sort of “church over-reach” that opponents of the measure discussed with North Dakotans in the weeks leading up to the vote.

The approach of foes of the measure should be instructive beyond North Dakota, Stoesz said.  She said the effort was made to reach out and “talk to people, give them something to think about, rather than going for sound bites.”

That approach was important she said, because on the surface, North Dakota should have been friendly turf for a measure that has been adopted only in Alabama.

Forty percent of North Dakotans identify themselves as Catholic, and 26 percent identify themselves as evangelicals, Stoesz said.

“They are very religious people,’’ she said. “But they carefully considered this and concluded they had no interest.”

Stoesz saw this as a rejection of institutions that attempt to restrict the rights of women “to make decisions about their own health care.” Beyond that, she believes North Dakotans may have been sending a message to Minnesotans that large religious institutions shouldn’t be saying who can marry whom.

But the biggest message, she said, is that political leaders don’t need to “cower” at everything uttered from some pulpit.

Those who supported the measure could do little but attack Planned Parenthood following the massive loss.

Supporters ready to fight on

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said in a statement that his group and other “pro-life” groups will continue to “fight for those who don’t want to be financially complicit in paying for abortions or birth control.”

Freier chalked up the loss to “the $1 million, out-of-state, Planned Parenthood war chest used to influence the vote.”

Financial reports prior to Tuesday’s vote did show that Planned Parenthood was the major contributor to the measure’s opposition. Reports show that Planned Parenthood came up with more than half of the $1 million used to fight the measure.

Meantime, supports of measure 3 operated on a much tighter budget. Pre-election reports showed supporters raised $103,000, with about $40,000 of that coming from the Catholic Church.

The money mattered, Bishop David Kagan of the Bismarck Diocese told a television reporter there.

“I was very disappointed in the outcomes,” he was quoted as saying in an interview on KFYR-TV. “It seems a lot of misinformation was disseminated across the state.”

By the way, the long, long fight over the nickname “Fighting Sioux” was ended by North Dakota voters.  They said, “Enough!” of the dispute, voting by a 2-to-1 ratio to repeal a state law requiring use of the controversial nickname.

(Voters also overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have made North Dakota the first state without property taxes.)

Not surprisingly, supporters of the Fighting Sioux nickname said they didn’t really lose. They, too, claimed they were outspent.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 06/15/2012 - 10:33 am.


    As my mother who is a native of ND would say North Dakotans are fiercely independent and don’t like being told what to do. These measures on the North Dakota ballot take what had already been decided by legislators and put on the ballot by special interest groups. People in ND decided to use the electoral system to run the state not special interests.

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 06/15/2012 - 10:47 am.

    As an ex-catholic…

    it is important to doubt, and most often appropriate to dismiss, any position the church takes, since their positions are always motivated by what benefits the church only.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 06/15/2012 - 10:54 am.

    Denying reality

    “They, too, claimed they were outspent.”

    They were outspent. Isn’t that an objective fact?

    “there’s at least one similarity between conservatives and progressives: They don’t lose; they’re just outspent.”

    Money has long been the “mothers milk” of politics. The requirement to seriously run for President is the ability to raise and spend it on media. Just ask Buddy Roemer. A former congressman and governor running for the Republican nomination who was ignored, while Michelle Bachman got daily coverage on MnPOST. Or compare him to Newt Gingrich. The only real difference was that latter two had people with money whose interests they served and were willing to fund their efforts.

    And its not limited to President. Ask any of the folks running “candidate trainings” for either party. They will tell you that the first criteria is the ability to raise money from your “personal rolodex”. The only thing that varies is the amount depending on the office. And you won’t raise it if you don’t have enough “friends” with the capacity to give it.

    You seem to think the idea that our political system is controlled by interests with money is somehow absurd on its face. While, in fact, its impossible to win an election without a huge bankroll if the other side has one.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/15/2012 - 11:20 am.

    North Dakotans aren’t stupid

    North Dakotans saw this for what it really was – an effort to make the state a theocracy. It would have given organized religion the same status as a human being (talk about being “prolife” – “Let my church LIVE!”)

    I can’t understand what part of American civics these people missed regarding the meaning of First Amendment’s establishment clause. Or about the religious oppression in Europe that lead to the reformation and the First Amendment.

    If you wonder why people are so politically opposed to each other, it’s stuff like this amendment that drive me up the wall. These people WANT religious interference in people’s lives under some mistaken idea that Christ – these are Christian groups after all – want to run every single part of their life. They want forced prayers, people behaving like the espouse (not usually actually behave) and then they don’t want to pay any taxes. To these aggressive religious groups: save yourselves – you need it more than I – and leave me the hell alone! You, not me, are the problem.

  5. Submitted by Kevin Slator on 06/15/2012 - 12:10 pm.

    I’m not sure about the national implications. The “no” vote might have had much to do with the way the measure was drafted, what it said, and what it didn’t say. I’m a lawyer, and I can’t fathom what the actual meaning and impact of those 100 words would have been.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/15/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    Most of us would agree that more money in whatever campaign’s coffers, the easier the win.

    Where was the big money in the attempt to rid the state of property taxes? On the winning side? Or, does that vote to keep propeerty taxes invalidate our generalizations about people not wanting ever to tax themselves, and that big money always wins the electoral battle?

    The voter sometimes can confound our theories.

  7. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/15/2012 - 01:42 pm.

    Property tax link

    The link to what I had assumed should have gone to an article on the defeated property tax measure goes to the article re the “Fighting Sioux” label.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/15/2012 - 02:21 pm.

    Looks like a pretty clean sweep

    That’s a pretty clear rejection of 3 reactionary agenda items. It doesn’t really surprise me that ND would turn out a progressive vote like this. I hope MN follows suit in November.

  9. Submitted by Ernest Payne on 06/16/2012 - 09:48 pm.

    Trickle Down

    Is it possible that, being next to Canada, there was a trickle down of intelligence from the north?

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