North Dakota residents are voting Tuesday on a controversial religious freedom referendum that opponents say could legalize child abuse, domestic violence and the marriage of men to 12-year-old girls.
Measure 3 -- one of four statewide referendums on the ballot -- would amend the state constitution to prevent state and local officials from implementing laws that could be defined as obstructing the exercise of religion. Supporters say that the law is needed to protect religion in North Dakota against such efforts as initiatives requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage to employees in health insurance packages. Opponents say that the measure will open up a laundry list of issues for the state.
Tom Freier, president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, told HuffPost that the group is backing the measure as reflective of policies it supports nationally.
"Because of what we see around us ... that level of intrusion by the government," he said.
The measure is needed due to the overturning of a federal religious freedom law by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, Freier said. According to Freier, that ruling opened up the doors for government intrusion into religious practices. He said legal research conducted by his group found that the First Amendment does not prevent all government actions with regards to religion, necessitating the need for the state law.
The effort behind Measure 3 began several years ago within the state legislature, with supporters taking the initiative to the statewide ballot in order to gain the votes for a constitutional amendment. Freier and other supportes are using the Obama administration's support of requiring contraception coverage as a driving force behind the referendum.
Freier did tell HuffPost that if the measure does pass today it would not stop the federal government from implementing the policy on contraceptive coverage in North Dakota.
"We are not trying to mislead that this would stop the federal government," Freier said. "It is a state measure."
Opponents say that the measure could lead to a host of issues in the state if it is passed. Information being distributed by North Dakotans Against Measure 3 says that its passage would allow for those arrested on charges of child abuse or domestic violence to claim that they cannot be prosecuted because their religion allows for such practices. In addition, opponents say it could allow men to marry girls as young as 12 years old, again by arguing it is part of their religious customs. Ritual animal sacrifice could also be legalized, along with allowing for the firing of unmarried pregnant women, opposition groups claim.
While religious freedom laws have been passed in 27 states, opponents are saying that the wording of the North Dakota proposal is vague and would open the doors to these various abuses. Freier disagrees, noting that his attorneys have stated that the Family Alliance is not trying to legalize child abuse or domestic violence. Freier also said the measure has limits to the religious freedom it allows -- it would not legalize Sharia law.
"Basically this is a tactic," Freier said. "This would in no way allow anyone the protection to beat their wife or marry a 12-year-old or allow for Sharia law."
The Family Alliance and the state's Catholic Conference are pushing Measure 3, as a long list of groups line up to oppose the measure. Opponents include the North Dakota Women's Network, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the North Dakota Western Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America, the Northern Plains Conference of the United Church of Christ and the state's five largest newspapers.
“Measure 3 is simply wrong for North Dakota," Tom Fiebiger, chairman of North Dakotans Against Measure 3, wrote in an email to HuffPost. "Every major paper in the state has come out against it -- as have the state’s most prominent women’s and children’s advocates and a number of religious leaders. We’re seeing this uprising from North Dakotans because it doesn’t sit well with them to change our constitution if it could lead to harm or discrimination.”
Freier took issue with Planned Parenthood's involvement, including its spending of $650,000 on ads to defeat the measure, a large amount for the largely rural state.
"For an out of state group to put in that type of money," Freier said. "Why would Planned Parenthood, whose business is abortion, put in $650,000 to defeat religious freedom?"