North Dakota Votes: Women, 1; Bishops, 0

North Dakota primaries don’t typically transfix the nation. But yesterday, all eyes were on polling centers in Bismarck and Fargo awaiting the outcome of Measure 3, the so-called “religious liberties” amendment to the State Constitution that would have spelled a major blow to women’s rights. Fortunately, the measure was defeated by an overwhelming margin of 64 to 36 percent, with the Associated Press calling the race at 10:15 p.m.–a very early election night.

The 82-word amendment, formally titled the Religious Liberty Restoration Act, stated that “a sincerely held religious belief” is sufficient grounds to disobey a law deemed contrary to that belief. The subtext? Measure 3 is part of a nationwide push by Catholic bishops to resist the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s mandate for no co-pay contraception. The bishops argue that the First Amendment should exempt religiously operated hospitals, schools and charities from covering birth control in employee health-insurance plans, as is required of all providers by the ACA. A Catholic bishop, Samuel Aquila of the Diocese of Fargo, co-sponsored Measure 3, and the North Dakota Catholic Conference publicly endorsed it. Ultra-conservative “pro-family” group the North Dakota Family Alliance was also a prominent supporter of the measure, contributing $10,000 for the Yes on Measure 3 campaign.

Although North Dakota is “red” state, Measure 3 most likely failed because it’s unnecessary: Religious freedom is thoroughly protected in the U.S. Constitution under the First Amendment. Tom Fiebiger, a civil rights attorney and chair of North Dakotans Against Measure 3, told The Jamestown Sun:

It would be different if people’s rights were being trampled, [but] the average North Dakotan has the same religious liberties they have always had and will continue to have.

Much of the opposition to the measure stemmed from its ambiguity. Because the proposed amendment failed to define the lengths to which “a sincerely held religious belief” would exempt people and institutions from following the law, critics saw dangerous unintended consequences. Lawyers feared the measure could be used as defense in criminal cases: Perpetrators of domestic violence, child abuse and even employment discrimination could say they were acting according to their “religious beliefs.”

Feminist activists helped rally opposition to the measure. Ms.‘s publisher, the Feminist Majority Foundation, worked on the ground with North Dakotans Against Measure 3, organizing college students under the banner “North Dakota Students Voting No on 3.” Major campuses in the state were plastered with signs, leaflets and stickers reading, “Vote NO on 3, It Goes Too Far.”

Although 15 states have enacted laws similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the measure’s detractors and proponents alike agreed that North Dakota’s variant was unprecedented in scope:

Measure 3…allows individuals to challenge any burden on their religious beliefs, regardless of degree, and may enable religious organizations to claim that they are entitled to receive and use taxpayer funds for religious purposes and activities.

At minimum, Measure 3 would have put up significant barriers to women’s reproductive-care access. North Dakota is home to some of the strictest anti-choice laws in the country; the state has conscience clauses allowing individual physicians and institutions to refuse to provide abortion care or referrals. Measure 3 would have extended those clauses to include birth control, emergency contraception and sterilization.

The defeat of Measure 3 was a significant blow to the anti-ACA campaign. Unfortunately, however, it hardly signifies the end of the “religious liberty” debate–or what feminists are more aptly calling the fight for no co-pay birth-control coverage. As we await the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, both supporters and critics are organizing. Catholic bishops are holding events in the name of “religious liberty” later this month, but not all religious community members are taking their side–the Catholic sisters of NETWORK are setting off on a bus tour to support the health-care mandate.


  1. I don’t see anything wrong with Measure 3 at all; if I were an observant muslim and I believed sincerely that the religious practice of jihad gave me the right to go around killing people with IEDs, why should I obey any secular law concerning mass murder? Surely it should be my right to kill who I like, making Measure 3 no more than a ‘Bomb Your Ground’ law? O wait, I forgot, islam is a brown people, non-christian religion so plainly it doesn’t count…

    • You’re kidding, right? Muslims already use that excuse to perpetrate “honor killings”. I assume you meant your remarks as sarcasm……

      • Iliana Echo says:

        I think the point here is that “religious freedom” in these contexts really means “Catholic/Christian religious freedom”.

  2. Michelle says:

    I grew up in North Dakota with its Democratic Non partisan tradition and was surprised that these two measures were even on the ballot. Yes some part of the state is very conservative, but North Dakota has its own state bank and owns a mill and grain elevator making it the most socialist state in the Union. There is a strong sense of fairness and a huge resentment for out of state money and politicians getting involved in State politics. I am happy that the state maintained its traditions of standing up for individual freedom and its desire to keep politicians and law enforcement out of people’s personal lives.

    • Natasha Beck says:

      Growing up,my family and I spent 2 weeks every summer for many years visiting my grandma in northwestern Minnesota,about an hour from Grand Forks,ND,so I have some familiarity with that area. The populist tradition has been around for over a hundred years,and I’ve heard good things about the state bank. However,on social issues,ND is much more conservative. My research indicates ND has the highest per capita,and highest percentage of church goers,of any state. Catholics and Lutherans have the most followers there.

      Massachusetts and Vermont,on the other hand,are progressive on social and economic issues,so I don’t think it’s accurate,as Michelle wrote,to characterize ND as our most socialist state.

      I’m an educator/writer/activist born in MI and living in OR.

  3. What the bishops claim as their “religious freedom” is actually a presumed right to religious tyranny. Steeped in misogyny, the bishops presume to decide and dictate morality for everyone (except their pedophilic parish priests). But women, including Catholics, have long been wise to this usurpation of judgment and have long abandoned this area of obeisance. Most American women, including Catholics, practice contraception, and with sound reason. Our rights as human beings must prevail.

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