The BEST State in America for Religious Freedom is…

September 16, 2022
Fli Insider | Religious Liberty in the States

by Jordan J. Ballor • 4 min read

How does Texas compare to Oklahoma in protecting religious liberty? What are the states with the best safeguards of free exercise in the nation? And which states have the most room for improvement?

A new project of the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), an initiative of the First Liberty Institute, gives concrete answers to these and many other questions. Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) is the first-ever nationwide empirical index of domestic religious liberty.

RLS focuses on legal safeguards of religious exercise in state law, both in statute and constitutions. The director of the project, Dr. Sarah Estelle, a CRCD research fellow and associate professor of economics at Hope College in Michigan, explored laws across all 50 states that have some relevance for religious liberty (Estelle was assisted in her research by Texas resident Camryn Zeller). Where at least one state has codified such protection in law, that law then determines an area where other states could provide similar protections.

The RLS index identifies 29 distinct items across 11 different safeguards where states have acted to legally protect religious expression and activity. The existence or absence of these safeguards is then scored on a binary scale: if a relevant item is present, then the state gets a 1. If it is absent, it gets a zero. When the scores are tallied and weighted, each state has a percentage score of the possible frontier of all identified domestic religious liberty protections.

The results for the 2022 RLS index have two states with quite different profiles leading the nation in providing these legal protections. Mississippi comes in first, with a score of 81.82%, followed closely by Illinois, which scores 80.52%. New Mexico comes in third, but with a score of 60.82% leads a large group of states that are twenty percentage points or more behind the leaders. The bottom three states—California at 48, West Virginia at 49, and New York at 50—all have less than 20% of the possible safeguards identified in the index. Texas, we might note, ranks exactly in the middle at 25 (and trails 16th ranked Oklahoma).

The 2022 index measures laws as of December 31, 2021. Changes after that will be accounted for in future iterations of the index. Trends will emerge as the project continues over time. Hopefully, these trends will be positive, as improvements to each state’s performance have been much easier through the work of this project. Each state now has a concrete list of areas where it can improve. And each state also now has specific examples from other states that can be adapted and used to expand the scope of safeguards for the everyday lives of religious people.

Be sure to visit the RLS website for an interactive national map, details on how each state scores, access to the full report, and more.

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