How Well Does Your State Protect Religious Liberty?

July 14, 2023
Religious Liberty in the States Index 2023 | First Liberty Institute

by Layton Brown & Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

We’re excited to announce the launch of the 2023 Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) Index!

Each year, the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy (CRCD), an initiative of First Liberty, publishes a nationwide index of domestic religious freedom. It measures and ranks protections for each of the 50 states. RLS focuses on select legal safeguards of religious exercise in statutes and constitutions.

Now in its second year, this rigorous and thoroughly researched study dives even deeper than last year’s edition.

We unveiled the 2023 RLS earlier in a live stream this week. Don’t miss this special presentation from the CRCD staff as they share the highlights. Watch below:

Which States Rank Best…and Worst?

RLS assigns an aggregate percentage score to each state, determined by the number of religious liberty “safeguards” found in state constitutions and laws. The index considers a total of 14 safeguards, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a forthcoming section.

Here are the top 5 with the percentage of the protections we examined:

  1. Illinois (85%)
  2. South Carolina (67%)
  3. New Mexico (66%)
  4. Mississippi (64%)
  5. Ohio (64%)

On the flip side, the states with the lowest scores are:

  1. California (26%)
  2. New Hampshire (21%)
  3. West Virginia (14%)

A majority of states fell within the 35%-50% range, which means every state has significant room for improvement. As CRCD’s experts explain, most states on average are employing less than half of the safeguards measured to protect religious liberty.

Curious about where your state ranks? Download the Executive Summary for the full ranking of all 50 states.

Religious Liberty in the States Index 2023

What’s New in RLS 2023

For 2023, RLS expanded in scope and value. The foundation, however, remains the same: Our experts continue to use the well-defined methodology and rigorous research standards from the first year. Here are three ways the index improved from last year.

First, RLS 2023 measures the presence or lack of 14 safeguards in each state—an increase from the original 11 safeguards from 2022. Safeguards are essentially laws or provisions in state constitutions that protect religious freedom. You can learn more about safeguards here.

Second, RLS enriched the methodology with an added step known to legal scholars and practitioners as “updating.” This process helps determine whether certain statutes are still considered “good” law. This is a very important addition to the research process and boosts the credibility of the index.

Third, there is new and expanded content based on recent changes in federal law that have affected how states operate with respect to religious liberty. These include, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson and the “Respect for Marriage Act” being signed into law. These actions raise questions about the opportunity for states to enhance religious liberty protections in areas such as healthcare and marriage.

National Impact

Because of RLS, everyday Americans can now access quality and reliable information to help them understand what their states are doing to protect religious liberty. What’s more, the index also provides a resource to state governments and legislatures on what they can do to better protect the free exercise of religion.

RLS had a huge impact in its inaugural year. Several states took action and passed bills—or actively put forward legislation—to add more religious liberty protections, because of the RLS.

The CRCD and First Liberty are proud of the tremendous work done by all the legal experts, researchers and fellows who work diligently to make this data available. RLS is one of our most important efforts. It was tremendously well-received in its first year, and it is our hope that the 2023 edition will continue to bear fruit and impact the national conversation on religious freedom.

First Liberty Insider | Religious Liberty in the States


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