Nonprofit religious liberty organisation compared U.S. states based on religious freedom

A study comparing U.S. states based on how free its citizens are to practise their religion was undertaken by a nonprofit legal group specialised in religious liberty matters.

On the First Liberty Institute’s “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)” index, Mississippi gives the highest safeguards for religious freedom, while New York is ranked lowest.

The states are rated according to the number of laws that guarantee the right to practise one’s religion, with the states with the greatest number of such laws receiving the highest rankings.

The study was overseen by Sarah Estelle, an associate professor of economics at Hope College in Michigan and a research fellow at the Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD). She examined legislation in all 50 states and reduced the index to only 29 statutes, the bulk of which provide safeguards for medical practitioners and enable them to choose not to provide abortions, sterilisations, and contraception.

Top-ranking For instance, Mississippi received a score of 20 out of 20 for having laws that permit medical professionals to decline to participate in treatments or services that conflict with their religious convictions.

In contrast, New York, which was ranked 50th, received a mere 5 out of 20 for its health care exemption rules. In the Empire State, doctors are not protected by the law if they choose not to conduct sterilisations, recommend contraception, or perform abortions. Nor are they shielded from criminal prosecution if they choose not to prescribe contraceptives.

Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington are the five states that have enacted “general conscience provisions,” which do not specify the kind of medical care they cover but provide protection to those who decline to participate in any medical services that go against their religious convictions.

These five states “may be regarded examples,” according to Estelle, for states contemplating implementing laws protecting health care employees’ right to practise their religion.

A general conscience clause, she told CNA, is the broadest form of protection a state can give medical professionals.

A universal conscience clause, for instance, would defend medical professionals who decline to participate in transsexual therapies. According to Estelle, the poll conducted the next year may show shifting public perceptions of these therapies.

We’ll see that too when we update our data each year, she said, if worries about particular medical procedures lead to changes in existing legislation, such as urging more states than the current five to adopt broad health care conscience protections.

Laws governing absentee voting (if states have laws that accept religious holidays as a valid basis to vote by absentee ballot), childhood vaccination requirements, and the ability to decline to take part in same-sex marriages are other protections included in the index.

Several areas of law that are not covered by the index are the subject of ongoing legal challenges involving religious freedom. According to the survey, factors such as state-funded religious school scholarships, adoption and foster care, workplace discrimination, and the treatment of convicts were not taken into account when determining the rankings.

State comparisons were impossible since such problems sometimes impacted federal legislation. Researchers opted to limit their criteria for their first index to a collection of state religious freedom laws because, as they write in the index’s introduction, these laws give a “sketch” of the legal safeguards for religious liberty in the United States.

Jordan J. Ballor, director of research at the CRCD, wrote in the introduction to the survey, “To get an accurate understanding of religious liberty in America, we must start our sketch with the base level before we might move on to examine other phenomena that strengthen, weaken, or leave untouched these foundational elements.

Here are some reasons why New York is ranked No. 50 while Mississippi is No. 1 among American states for protecting religious freedom:

The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)


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