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Issue Date:  August 11, 2006

The father of direct democracy

An activist priest brought the referendum to the United States


As many across the country know, earlier this year the South Dakota legislature passed a law banning most abortions in the state; only those undertaken to save the life of the mother are exempt. Opponents of the new law claimed it went too far and vowed to challenge it, asserting that forces outside the state bent on overturning Roe v. Wade were behind the bill.

Ironically, the first challenge to the law came from outside South Dakota when a Wisconsin man filed papers with the South Dakota secretary of state to refer the law to a vote of the people. South Dakota-based opponents of the law rallied themselves and took charge of the referendum drive, aiming to collect 16,728 signatures, or 5 percent of the total vote in the last gubernatorial election, and put the repeal on this fall’s ballot. The next gubernatorial election is this fall, and Gov. Mike Rounds, a candidate for re-election, may share the ballot with the measure to rescind the law he signed. After signing the bill in March, Gov. Rounds saw his popularity in the state fall from nosebleed heights in the 70s (among the highest in the nation) to the more pedestrian high 50s (it was just over 60 percent in June). In mid-June, South Dakota’s secretary of state certified that enough signatures had been collected and that the law will appear on the fall ballot.

More ironic than the out-of-state source of the referendum drive to repeal the law is the genesis of this exercise in direct democracy. It is probable that few abortion rights supporters know that the father of the referendum process in this country is a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Robert W. Haire.

A Michigan native, Fr. Haire became a missionary to Dakota Territory in the early 1880s. Soon after his arrival, he established the first parish in what would become northeastern South Dakota, Sacred Heart Parish in Aberdeen. In another interesting irony of history, three-quarters of a century later, Sacred Heart would become the home parish of Tom Daschle, who represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate for 18 years until his defeat in November 2004.

Fr. Haire, once an activist in the Underground Railroad, never settled for paving his flock’s way to the afterlife. He believed in perfecting the present through political action. From his pulpit and in public speeches, Haire became an early proponent of women’s suffrage and an advocate of prohibition of alcoholic beverages. For him, these issues meshed with his belief in state solutions to contemporary problems.

Unfortunately, the combination of temperance and radicalism didn’t sit well with all of his parishioners or with his bishop. In 1889, Bishop Martin Marty demanded that the priest choose between his pastorate and his politics. Fr. Haire chose politics, and Bishop Marty stripped him of his priestly privileges. He would no longer be pastor nor be able to administer the sacraments.

Although he challenged his censure, Fr. Haire increased his political activity. He got involved in the South Dakota Populist Party and is credited with helping found the state’s Socialist Party. As early as 1885, even before statehood was achieved in 1889, he saw a need for a “people’s legislature.” He believed that when the people were dissatisfied with the adequacy of representation by the legislature, they needed a direct way of impacting their government. Thus he and other South Dakotans developed the concept of the initiative and referendum process through which citizens could bring to a popular vote laws proposed by the people (initiative) or attempt to repeal acts of the legislature (referendum). Fr. Haire stumped for the proposal across the state and enlisted the Knights of Labor to promote the concept. When populists took control of the state legislature, they proposed a constitutional amendment, which the people of South Dakota approved in 1898, making it the first state in the country to recognize forms of direct democracy that have become a mainstay of American politics.

South Dakota was not the first in the world to adopt such measures. Switzerland’s similar constitutional provisions predate America’s by a few decades. Having spent part of his seminary time in Europe, Fr. Haire may have been familiar with the Swiss version, although some argue that he created the idea independently. However he developed the concept, Fr. Haire is recognized as one of the originators of the American initiative and referendum.

Fr. Haire continued his political activism, but the death of Bishop Marty created an opportunity for him to return to the active priesthood. Marty’s successor, Bishop Thomas O’Gorman, reinstated Fr. Haire and assigned him as chaplain for a convent and hospital in his adopted hometown of Aberdeen, where he died in 1916.

According to the South Dakota secretary of state’s Web site, 35 of 42 laws referred to a vote in the state’s history have been struck down. While the priest in Fr. Haire would likely disapprove of repealing the abortion law, the activist in him is probably pleased to see “the people’s legislature” in action.

Patrick Gallagher works for the Catholic school system in Aberdeen, S.D., and is a freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2006

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