The story: New Index Provides First-Ever State-by-State Ranking of Religious Freedom in the United States Is your state doing enough to protect your religious freedom?
The background: The Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy (CRCD), an initiative of the First Liberty Institute, has released its first Index of Religious Freedom in the United States (RLS). The index measures the laws and constitutional guarantees for religious exercise in all 50 states and provides them with a numerical ranking. As the CRCD notes, “Unlike other indices of religious freedom, this indicates the extent to which writing the law allows people to live by their religious beliefs, rather than evaluating what people do with religious freedom or attitudes toward religion in states.
The index uses the term “safeguards” to describe state laws that help overcome artificial barriers that would otherwise reduce a person’s ability to practice their religion. For 2022, the RLS Index includes 29 elements that contribute to the following 11 distinct safeguards, which have been categorized into six groups:
1. Absentee Voting: Sometimes a religious person may find that voting at a polling station on election day conflicts with their religious beliefs, for example, due to religious practice. The mail-in ballot guarantee protects that person’s ability to participate in the election at another time or by other means.
2. Immunization requirements for children: In 2022, all states require vaccination of school-aged children. This guarantee indicates whether or not the state allows non-medical exemptions, whether based on religion or broader philosophical reasons.
3. Health Care Delivery—General Awareness: This warranty protects health care providers and/or health care facilities in their right to refuse to provide any conscientious medical care procedure.
4. Provision of health care — Refusal of abortion: This guarantee protects health care providers and/or health care facilities in their right to refuse to provide abortion-related services.
5. Provision of Health Care—Refusal of Sterilization: This warranty protects health care providers and/or health care facilities in their right to refuse to provide sterilization-related services.
6. Health Care Delivery—Contraception Refusal: This warranty protects health care providers and/or health care facilities in their right to refuse to participate in contraceptive procedures or the distribution of contraceptives.
seven. Health Insurance Contraceptive Mandate: This safeguard determines whether states maintain existing federal exemption space for religious employers, either by not having a state-level contraceptive mandate, or by providing broad exemptions to their own mandate, or whether the state actually narrows that space with its own mandate and none or narrow exemptions.
8. Weddings and Marriages—Religious Entity Denial: This element indicates whether there are safeguards allowing the clergy to refuse the solemnization of marriages which violate their religious beliefs or doctrines.
9. Marriages and Marriages—Recusal of a Public Official: This element indicates whether there are safeguards allowing public officials to refuse the solemnization of marriages which violate their religious beliefs or doctrines.
ten. Weddings and Marriages—For-Profit Business No participation: This is a safeguard for businesses that engage in the solemnization, recognition, association or solemnization of marriages or marriages that allows them to refuse services that violate personal religious or moral beliefs.
11. Religious Freedom Restoration Act: In 1997, the decision in City of Boerne vs. Flores concluded that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was unconstitutional in its application to the states and therefore applied only to federal actors and acts. Since then, many states have enacted laws, modeled after the federal RFRA, that emphasize protection from the burden of government action that many recognize can arise from religiously neutral laws.
If the state had a law that provides guarantees for religious freedom (such as denial of abortion), it received a score of 1 in this category. If there are no safeguards, the state scored a 0. The average score of the 11 safeguards was used to determine each state’s overall score (in percentage), and these overall scores were used to determine the ranking States.
For example, the top-ranked state is Mississippi with a score of 82% (with nine of 11 protective measures), while the state in the middle of the pack – Texas at 25th – scored 39. % (performing at least parts of five out of eleven guarantees). The RLS provides a summary of how each state measures the potential to protect free exercise.
What this means: If you are a nurse, can your hospital fire you for refusing to participate in an abortion? If you are a pastor, can you legally refuse to perform a ceremony for a same-sex couple? The answers to these questions depend on the state in which you live.
Many Christians in America are surprised that religious freedom protections vary from state to state. For the past few decades, we have viewed religious freedom as a federal issue to be resolved by the legal system, particularly the Supreme Court. This is a reasonable assumption since the First Amendment establishes a right to the free exercise of religion at the national level. But while there are many federal laws, court orders, and regulations that protect religious freedom, these federal provisions often leave considerable room for matters to be decided at the state level. As the RLS notes, “all fifty states codify at least some additional protections of free exercise, providing exclusions and exemptions for individuals or religious organizations.”
The index also reveals that we cannot make assumptions about how protected we are depending on whether we live in a “red” or “blue” state. Both types of states are at the top and bottom of the ranking. For example, one of the reddest states, Mississippi, ranked first but was followed closely by the blue state of Illinois. Predictably, some of the bluer states ranked near the bottom: California was second-to-last at 48th and New York at 50th.
However, some blue states such as Washington (#5), Maryland (#8), Connecticut (#11), and Maine (#14) scored in the first frame, beating red states like Arkansas (#28), North Dakota (#37) and South Carolina (#38).
What makes this index particularly useful for citizens and legislators is that it shows which safeguards are already possible and achievable. Lawmakers in states likely to be more supportive of religious freedom should be able to pass legislation that is as protective as other states. If public hospitals in Connecticut are allowed to refuse to participate in an abortion, why can’t a similar law be passed in Oklahoma?
The Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy has produced a valuable resource that can educate the public about gaps in state-level religious freedom protections. Now it’s up to us to pressure our legislators to ensure that in future editions of the index, every state is tied for first place.