The right-wing messaging machine assembled by Republican stalwarts and their conservative allies to defeat President Obama and the Democrats in 2012 has for more than a year been carefully constructing a campaign to gin up fears that the Obama administration is mounting a war on “religious freedom.” It’s part of a broader project of raising concerns that might break loose economically populist but socially conservative voters in the swing states that will decide whether President Obama is re-elected. But the voters of North Dakota—not exactly a bastion of anticlericalism—have offered evidence that this cynical gaming of the age old debate over chuch-state relations might not get much traction.
A statewide referendum designed to create sweeping new exemptions for religious activity in secular life—based on the precept that “government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious liberty”—was soundly rejected by the red state’s voters Tuesday.
North Dakotans defeated the referendum by a vote of 107,186 to 60,129.
“We are grateful North Dakotans did the right thing and rejected this unnecessary and potentially dangerous measure,” announced Tom Fiebiger, a Fargo-based civil rights attorney who chaired the remarkable grassroots campaign that beat the proposal, North Dakotans Against Measure 3.
Among the many concerns raised by the group was that the measure, if enacted, would allow those charged with domestic violence to claim that their religion allowed them to “discipline” spouses and children. Another concern, acknowledged by groups on both sides of the North Dakota debate, was what the Planned Parenthood Action Fund referred to as the intention of Measure 3 sponsors to “eviscerate key protections built into the Affordable Care Act, including protections from the Obama administration that ensure Americans get adequate coverage for essential health services and coverage of preventive services without a co-pay. The ballot initiative was aimed squarely at the birth control benefit.”
That brought the action fund and other pro-choice groups into the fight, along with the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, the North Dakota Women’s Network and the North Dakota chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women were in, as well, along with ND Healthy Families Opposing Measure 3, which worked for a “No” vote Tuesday.
“The defeat of Measure Three, the so called ‘Religious Liberties Restoration Amendment,’ in North Dakota yesterday marked a major victory for women’s health care and represents a decisive warning for those seeking to make religious refusal of health services a political issue. As some Republicans and the Catholic bishops continue their push to restrict access to contraception, yesterday’s election results in North Dakota show resoundingly that they are out of step with most voters, even in conservative states,” noted Planned Parenthood Action Fund executive vice president Dawn Laguens.
“[The] victory belongs to the people of North Dakota who stood up for religious freedom by defeating the divisive Measure 3. This ballot measure could have allowed discrimination and health-care refusals and tied up the state in costly legal battles,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The message to anti-choice groups is clear: voters are tired of your divisive attacks that undermine the fundamental American values of freedom and privacy.”
The success of that campaign ought to serve as a signal to the Obama administration, Democrats and responsible Republicans that they can push back against the manufactured “religious freedom” campaign.
Conservative strategists developed the project going into the 2012 campaign, with an eye toward stirring fears that religious freedoms are under assault in the United States.
The “religious freedom” messaging has become such a big part of 2012 Republican campaigning that Mitt Romney—who once spoke with relative eloquence about the importance of religious diversity and tolerance—now declares without cracking a smile that “I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama.”
In fact, the blurring of lines that once separated religion and government has accelerated in recent years, creating a circumstance that alarms Americans who fear what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “this loathsome combination of church and state” and share James Madison’s view that “the civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Keenan argues—based on the North Dakota result—that the great majority of Americans still hold to those ideals.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the work done in North Dakota and the voters who stood up for fairness and privacy,“ says Keenan. “Just last November, voters in Mississippi defeated an extreme ‘personhood’ initiative, and the defeat of Measure 3 is another example of how these anti-choice measures are out of touch with our American values and priorities.”