The leader of a Planned Parenthood chapter said attacks on the group over its opposition to North Dakota's religious freedom amendment backfired and ended up helping the organization.
Sarah Stoerz, president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the group did not get involved in the effort to defeat the religious freedom amendment -- known as Measure 3 -- so that the organization would become a target in the debate, but that supporters of the measure tried to turn the vote into a referendum on the women's health group. Measure 3, which was backed by the North Dakota Family Alliance and the North Dakota Catholic Conference, was defeated, 65 percent to 35 percent, in a statewide referendum Tuesday.
"Proponents thought that Planned Parenthood could scare people in North Dakota," Stoerz told HuffPost. "It did not. I feel good that Planned Parenthood became an issue at the end of the campaign and voters sided with us clearly."
The religious freedom amendment -- one of four statewide questions on the North Dakota ballot Tuesday -- would have amended the state constitution to prevent state and local officials from implementing laws that could be defined as obstructing the exercise of religion.
It pitted conservative and Catholic activists in the state against a flurry of organizations, including the Lutheran Church and the United Church of Christ. Supporters of the amendment told HuffPost earlier this week that the amendment was needed in order to protect religion from the state government. Opponents of the measure argued that the amendment was too broad and could lead to the legalization of various activities if they were claimed as part of a religion. Among the items cited by opponents were the potential legalization of child abuse, domestic violence, ritual animal sacrifice, marriage of 12-year-olds, the firing of unwed mothers and the denial of medical coverage.
While the opposing coalition, North Dakotans Against Measure 3, included several members, Planned Parenthood quickly became the focal point. Measure 3 supporters claimed the "out-of-state group" was pushing a pro-abortion message in the election.
Stoerz took issue with the "out-of-state" designation, noting that Planned Parenthood, which spent $650,000 on the campaign, has been operating in Fargo for more than 10 years. "It was clear to us early on that we needed to get involved in this," she said. "I was interested in proving that religious liberty is not at risk in North Dakota."
Stoerz said it was an uphill campaign for opponents in the Republican-leaning state, noting that supporters had been laying the groundwork for their campaign for years. The key was making sure North Dakotans knew that "this was not about some boogeyman threatening religious freedom," she said.
"It was not a hard sell," she said. "They quickly realized that as Catholics in North Dakota, there were not any constraints on their religious beliefs. The absurdity became clear."
Former state Sen. Tom Fiebiger (D-Fargo), who chaired the main opposition group, said North Dakotans Against Measure 3 focused primarily on educating residents on the far-reaching impact of the measure and why it was not needed. The vote showed the state's main metropolitan areas voting heavily against the measure, which passed only in several sparsely populated rural counties, he said.
Fiebiger said he believes voters rejected the attacks on Planned Parenthood and voted "no," as a message to Catholic bishops that they can think on their own. He noted that 170,000 voted, a record primary turnout in the state. In addition to Measure 3, voters considered measures to repeal all property taxes, and to ban the Fighting Sioux nickname, along with competitive primaries for Congress and state schools chief.
"I'm hopeful that this means people don't want to be told to be afraid," he said. "That we can think for ourselves.
The Catholic Conference issued a statement this week saying it plans to continue the fight for a religious freedom law and blamed Planned Parenthood for the defeat Tuesday.
"One success of this campaign is that more North Dakotans now know what the legal experts concluded – North Dakota does not provide adequate protection for religious freedom," the Catholic Conference said. "The massive amount of out-of-state money Planned Parenthood poured into the opposition campaign confirms that religious freedom in North Dakota is not safe and that there are well-organized and well-funded groups ready to take advantage of that situation."
Stoerz said she does not mind her group being the focal point. "I didn't want this to be a referendum on Planned Parenthood," she said. "When it became a referendum on Planned Parenthood, people responded. People know that they can trust us."