Q&A on SQ 777, the ‘Right to Farm’ Question

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A ballot measure, State Question 777, would place in Oklahoma’s constitution a “right to farm,” setting new limits on elected officials’ ability to pass laws that might infringe on farming rights.

Farming, in this case, refers to Oklahoma’s agricultural industry, whose revenues totaled $7.1 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly three-fourths of the total came from cattle, hogs, poultry and their products, and the rest from crops.

Supporters and opponents have clashed over whether the language in the ballot is too ambiguous and how far-reaching the proposal would be. But here is what we know and what we don’t know about the measure.

Q: What would the state question do?

A: It would create a new section in Oklahoma’s constitution that expresses a right to make use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures and ranching practices. According to the language on the ballot measure, “no law can interfere with these rights, unless the law is justified by a compelling state interest – a clearly identified state interest of the highest order.”

Q: What does a ‘compelling state interest’ mean?

A: In constitutional law, this means strict scrutiny must be applied to any law that might interfere with any of the rights outlined in the amendment. Essentially, a given law would have to be shown to be important or necessary as opposed to just preferable.

Q: What is an example of a compelling state interest?

A: A bill signed into law this year by Gov. Mary Fallin declared that the protection of Oklahoma’s waters is a compelling state interest. For other matters, that could be up to a judge to decide.

Q: Are there other limitations on what SQ 777 would apply to?

A: The new constitutional protections would not apply to state laws related to trespassing, eminent domain, dominance of mineral interest, easements, rights of way or other property rights.

Q: Would the measure apply to laws already on the books?

A: Some. But any state statutes or political subdivision ordinances enacted before Dec. 31, 2014, would not be affected.

Q: How did the question get put on the ballot?

A: The Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 1012 in 2015 to put the question to a vote of the people. The legislation was approved 85-7 in the House and 39-6 in the Senate.

Q: Doesn’t Oklahoma already have a right-to-farm law?

A: Yes. Oklahoma and the 49 other states have some form of statutory protection for farming against nuisance lawsuits. Oklahoma law states that “agricultural activities conducted on farm or ranch land, if consistent with good agricultural practices and established prior to nearby nonagricultural activities, are presumed to be reasonable and do not constitute a nuisance unless the activity has a substantial adverse effect on the public health and safety.”

Q: Who supports SQ 777?

A: Groups that have endorsed the measure include the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Pork Council and the Oklahoma Agricultural Cooperative Council.

Q: Why do they support it?

A: Yes on SQ777, a coalition of groups, state on its website that the measure is needed because “some extremist groups have targeted agriculture in recent years and now farmers are supporting the Right to Farm amendment to provide long-lasting legal protections for their way of life and for the economic base of rural Oklahoma.” As an example, representatives of the groups have cited a California proposition passed in 2008 that prohibits certain farm animals from being confined in a way that prevents them from standing up, turning around freely, lying down and fully extending their limbs.

Proponents also say the amendment will help ensure the survival of family-owned farms, which have declined in number over decades. About nine out of 10 agricultural operations are owned by families or individuals.

Q: Who is against SQ 777?

A: Opponents include the Oklahoma Alliance for Animals, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, the Oklahoma Conference of Churches and several city councils, including Oklahoma City’s, which have passed resolutions in opposition.

Q: Why do they oppose the question?

A: Vote No on 777, a coalition of groups, says on its website that passing the measure would allow “corporations to use ‘right to farm’ as an excuse to harm our lands, weaken our state’s traditional agricultural standards and remove our ability to protect our land, our animals and our environment.” As an example, some representatives have cited hog and chicken slaughter operations that produce manure that can pollute rivers and streams.

Opponents argue that large “factory farms” and international corporations dictate agricultural practices, often through contracts, down to the local farm level and prioritize profits over safety and humane animal treatment.

Q: What other states have a constitutional right to farm?

A: Voters passed similar amendments in North Dakota in 2012 and Missouri in 2014. North Dakota’s was approved with 66.9 percent of the vote and Missouri’s was approved with 50.1 percent of the vote.

Q: How do these compare to Oklahoma’s proposal?

A: Oklahoma’s proposal is different in that it spells out specific exemptions, such as trespassing and property rights, and includes the “compelling state interest” provision.

Q: How have the other states’ courts interrupted the amendments?

A: There have been few court challenges evoking the right to farm provision in those states. But some rulings in Missouri indicate that the right to farm is not an absolute right.

This was shown when the Missouri Supreme Court rejected an objection to the amendment in a post-election challenge. In doing so, it asserted that the state could still regulate the agriculture industry because “no constitutional right is so broad as to prohibit all regulation.” A circuit court rejected an argument in 2015 by a pair of defendants who maintained their marijuana-growing operation was protected by the right to farm.