Illinois And South Carolina Rank Tops In Religious Liberty Index

By Jovan Tripkovic

December 21, 2023



Illinois and South Carolina have the most religious liberty safeguards currently in place, while states such as West Virginia ranked at the bottom, a report issued by a conservative think tank revealed.

The Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy at First Liberty Institute, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom, issued the report last month. In it, the group ranked all 50 U.S. states, from best to worst, as part of an annual religious freedom index.

CRCD published the second annual Religious Liberty in the States Index on Nov. 1, ranking religious freedom by analyzing 14 categories of state laws and regulations — from safeguards allowing ceremonial use of alcohol by minors to recusal of public officials from officiating same-sex marriage. The report aims to capture the impact of these safeguards on both individuals and religious organizations.

According to the latest index, the three states with the most religious freedom protections are Illinois, South Carolina and New Mexico. Meanwhile, California, New Hampshire and West Virginia rank lowest for religious freedom protections in the country.

Results range from as low as 14% to a high of 85%, with no state reaching a perfect score.

“With an expansion of the index, adding three new ranking categories, the gap between the first and last ranked state is larger than the year before,” Jordan Ballor, a research director of CRCD said in a phone interview with Religion Unplugged.

Some surprising results

Religious liberty is perceived as a hyper-partisan issue. For those on the political right, it’s on the top of the political agenda. The left, meanwhile, has often accuses the Supreme Court of weaponizing religious liberty issues against the LGBT community.

These preconceived attitudes, however, don’t translate into public policy. Quite the contrary. Illinois, a reliable blue state, is ranked No. 1, while West Virginia, a red state, is last.

Trey Dimsdale, executive director of CRCD, said he was surprised with the results.

“Besides Illinois being number one, I didn’t expect New Mexico and Washington to be in the top 10. These states don’t have a reputation for being particularly concerned about religious communities,” he said.

Asma T. Uddin, a visiting professor at Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., didn’t expect to see Texas towards the bottom of the list at No. 42.

“I associated Texas with GOP claims about prizing religious liberty and making it a first priority, particularly when it comes to religious exceptions,” Uddin said. “I wasn’t surprised that Utah was toward the top, given its significant accomplishment with the Utah Compromise.”

For Mark David Hall, director of the Religious Liberty in States Index, the Palmetto State was a pleasant surprise.

“South Carolina made strides to enhance their religious liberty laws and recently passed a general conscience provision for healthcare, an impressive jump from 38th to 2nd place,” Hall said.

Darker areas reveal more religious liberty safeguards, while lighter ones had the least. (Graphic courtesy of The Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy at First Liberty Institute)

Religious liberty for all

The latest study debunks the idea that religious freedom is a partisan issue, exclusively reserved for white evangelicals. Although not a perfect reality, the index demonstrates the bipartisan and ecumenical nature of religious liberty in the U.S.

Jonathan Den Hertog, a professor and chair of the Department of History at Samford University, said he appreciated the way the index showed that religious liberty protections are not simply a “blue” or “red” issue.

“This fundamental liberty needs the bipartisan support of all Americans to remain a vital force in American public life,” Den Hertog said.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center Campus Free Expression Project, agreed with Den Hertog on the bipartisan appeal of religious liberty.

“Religious freedom issues,” she said, “affect people on the left and right.”

Uddin also said religious freedom is a bipartisan issue. However, she said that there are many aspects of the index that do not reflect bipartisan support.

“There are lots of exemptions-related information, particularly in the marriage and healthcare context that are not bipartisan,” Uddin said.

While some left-of-center organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, promote a belief that religious freedom in the public square justifies Christian bigotry and anti-gay discrimination, throughout history, religious minorities have benefited the most from such protections.

Merrill said minorities are the most vulnerable to having their freedoms infringed upon.

“Religious freedom is not exclusive to any particular creed, sect or spiritual community,” Merrill said.

The Muslim community in the United States is an excellent example of this. According to Uddin, the importance of religious freedom and relevance of CRCD’s Index for American Muslim lies particularly in three issues: Whether the state has a RFRA, whether it permits schools absences for religious observance (since most school districts are open on Muslim holidays) and provisions for religious ceremonial life.

“One of the main concerns many Muslims have is the availability of opt-out provisions to public school curricula on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Uddin said. “And that is not accounted for in the index.”

Setting the standard

While there are similar initiatives, including Becket’s Religious Freedom Index and Alliance Defending Freedom’s Business Index, CRCD’s Religious Liberty in the States Index is a leader in the field. It’s the only religious freedom survey that uses quantitative methods to compare data on the impacts of laws.

Dimsdale said he’s is proud of the center’s flagship research project. He said he believes that the index is rigorously vetted and methodologically sound.

“Each year, it has been through a peer review process that involves reviewers that have expertise in quantitative and qualitative methods of research, law, economics, and politics,” he said. “The methodology is straightforward and free from as many subjective variables as possible.”

Earlier this year, the Napa Legal Institute launched the Faith and Freedom Index that scores state laws that affect faith-based, federally tax-exempt nonprofits. Despite this, Ballor said that the CRCD’s Index is still unique.

“There is nothing else like it. The RLS Index is the most comprehensive, ambitious and robust project out there,” Ballor said.

In addition to setting the standard in the field of measuring religious freedom, the index also serves a practical purpose. Policymakers and legislators can use the index to suggest religious freedom reforms they can implement.

Den Hertog said citizens can also benefit from the index.

“Citizens can identify practical steps they can take in their state to improve religious freedom protections,” Den Hertog said.

According to Dimsdale, individuals affiliated with the CRCD were directly contacted by lobbyists and state legislators from several states. Without providing specific details, Dimsdale said, that “in the past year, West Virginia and North Dakota passed RFRA and Arkansas passed new protections for voter rights. We are certain that in some of those places, our Index had a direct impact by highlighting areas missing in state law.”

What’s next?

Despite being only three years old, the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy’s leadership has big plans for the future. Turning the Religious Liberty in the States Index into a recognizable brand is among the group’s top priorities going forward.

The second annual edition saw an increase in safeguards: From 11 to 14 and a change of leadership. Sarah Estelle, the project’s founding director and the creator of index’s statistical and data-driven framework, has been succeeded by Mark David Hall, a political scientist and professor at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government.

Hall told Religion Unplugged: “We plan to uphold the methodology pioneered by Dr. Estelle, as it has been the cornerstone of our success. My primary goal will be to ensure the incorporation of modern safeguards that align with the Founding Fathers’ vision of religious freedom for all Americans.”

Ballor shares this vision, aiming for a more robust index with additional safeguards.

“Our goal is to carefully include as many safeguards as possible. We will continue to evaluate existing and incoming state laws, analyzing the possibility of including them in future reports,” Ballor said.

Considering the early success of the index, Dimsdale said he’s contemplating the possibility of conducting a similar project in Europe.

“Producing a detailed religious freedom ranking for the European Union members would be a challenging task for various reasons: Different political and legal systems, different languages. … It would be such an innovative project, allowing the CRCD to make a transatlantic contribution.”

Lilla Nora Kiss, a Hungarian legal expert based in Washington, D.C. and a visiting scholar at Antonin Scalia Law School, said she believes that such a project could provide valuable insights into the diverse landscape of religious liberty in the E.U. member states.

“The unique tapestry of the European Union encompasses a range of historical contexts that shape approaches to religious freedom,” Kiss said. “This project would need to carefully consider and account for variations between states, such as secularism as a cornerstone of governance in France or the state church in Sweden. If executed correctly, such an initiative could serve as a catalyst for informed discussions, policy proposals, and the reinforcement of religious liberties in the European Union.”