The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution establishes that people have the right to freely exercise their religion. Hugh Whelchel explains the importance of this fundamental right by saying the following:
Religious freedom is important for all Americans, not just American Christians. And it’s important not just because it’s in the Constitution. It’s important because the principles that support religious freedom flow from God’s word. True religious liberty provides the freedom to live and work within a Christian worldview seven days a week, fulfilling God’s call in our families, churches, communities, and vocations.
What most Americans may not realize, however, is that the fifty states have the primary responsibility to protect certain aspects of the free exercise of religion for people in their everyday lives. As it turns out, while all states have passed at least some laws securing at least some provisions and exemptions for religious expression, some states do more than others.
Introducing the Religious Liberty in the States Project
I have the privilege of serving as the director of Religious Liberty in the States, a project of the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy. Last week we published the inaugural Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) index which you can use to find out where your state ranks for religious liberty, which rights your state protects, and which rights it does not.
The RLS index is a measure of statutory and constitutional “safeguards” for religious exercise in the fifty states. Unlike other indexes of religious liberty, this indicates the extent to which written law allows people to live according to their religious beliefs, rather than assessing what people do with religious liberty or attitudes toward religion in the states.
This measure of the space in which people can freely live according to their religion highlights the ways states currently uphold commitments to religious liberty, as well as the areas where opportunities for improvement exist within state law. And because RLS does so with a focus on formal, recorded law, there are clear steps for a state that wants to see improvement. A concerned citizen can share the information about the state from RLS with their elected representatives. Then state legislatures can write new laws, even making use of what their peers have accomplished in the relevant safeguard area.
The Best State for Religious Liberty is 2022: Mississippi
Mississippi has undertaken important steps to allow the free exercise of religion within its borders and, in doing so, has earned the highest score of all fifty states in 2022. The Magnolia State achieved this top spot with 82 percent of the total potential safeguards tracked by the RLS index, narrowly beating out Illinois’ score of 81 percent. These two states stand well above the third-place finisher, New Mexico, with a score of 61 percent. In fact, the average score of all fifty states is only 39 percent, making Mississippi’s score more than double that of the average state.
One of the main areas where Mississippi shines is in protecting healthcare providers’ right to refuse participation in specific procedures—such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception. In fact, Mississippi is one of only five states that allows practitioners to refuse participation in any procedure that violates their conscience.
Perhaps the most unique contribution Mississippi has made to safeguarding religious liberty is the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, which was passed in 2016. This act ensures, among other protections, that clergy, religious entities, public officials, and even for-profit businesses can choose to abstain from performing wedding services or participating in marriage celebrations that would conflict with “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” No other state has codified into law such a protection for private businesses, and in some cases, states have even attempted to limit free exercise by requiring business owners to participate in wedding celebrations against their will.
You can read more about why Mississippi takes the top spot here.
Most States are Not Doing Enough for Religious Freedom
Despite this encouraging news out of states like Mississippi and Illinois, there is still much room for improvement. As mentioned above, the average score for states is only 39 percent. In fact, the vast majority of states (43 of 50) provide 50 percent or less of the possible legal safeguards identified in the index and the median American lives with only 35 percent of the possible safeguards in place. Our hope is that the RLS index is a useful tool for people to learn about the legal safeguards for their religious liberty and gives them a starting point to advocate for improved safeguards in their states.
Just because the right to religious expression is listed within the Bill of Rights, that does not mean it is a foregone conclusion that we are truly free to exercise our religious beliefs in every area of life. As the RLS index has shown, no state is doing everything it possibly can to protect religious freedom, but at least now we have a clear way of knowing how each state can improve.