As president of University of Mary—North Dakota’s only Catholic college—Father James P. Shea is, not surprisingly, taking a visible role in supporting a proposed religious liberty amendment to the state constitution.
Although the move to pass the North Dakota amendment began before the Obama administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate, the federal actions have put a spotlight on the state-level contest. North Dakota voters will decide the issue June 12.
The proposed amendment reads 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 in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.
Father Shea has cut a radio ad in which the priest purports to speak with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom, which was a forerunner of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom in the U.S.
In the radio spot, one of a series put together by a group called Religious Liberty Restoration Committee, Jefferson’s words on the centrality of religious liberty are followed by remarks from Father Shea. Father Shea recalls how important religious liberty was to the Benedictine nuns who founded the University of Mary in the 1870s. But, now, the priest says on the ad, religious liberty is under attack.
The amendment certainly appears to be under attack specifically from Planned Parenthood, which, according to Tom Fom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance Action, as quoted by LifeNews, has spent more than half million dollars trying to defeat the North Dakota measure. Freier reportedly said that he based this figure on documents in the Secretary of State’s office.
Meanwhile, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights says in a news release that Planned Parenthood isn’t the only such organization working to defeat the amendment. In addition to Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Feminist Majority, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the ACLU are also working against the amendment, according to the Catholic League.
“Just a bit ago, I would have told you with confidence that I wasn’t seeing any opposition. But I am becoming alarmed,” Father Shea, who had just returned from a silent retreat to learn of Planned Parenthood’s involvement, said. The priest called the alleged spending by Planned Parenthood “an indication that this measure is of great strategic importance [to them].”
While contraception appears to be one of the underlying themes of the battle, Father Shea can see the battle over religious freedom becoming wider and engulfing more issues.
Father Shea said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but it does appear that current in the culture are putting Catholic social teaching in question. There are challenges on many different fronts but, as I look carefully at the landscape and listen to the media noise, there seems to be a hope afoot that there is a move to mute the voice of the Church in the public sphere.”
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