Announcing RLS 2022’s #1 State: 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 the inaugural Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) rankings.

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.

The RLS index captures the extent to which people have the freedom to practice their religion in everyday life based on their state’s laws, not just their ability to gather for worship. Here are three key areas of statutory law that make Mississippi uniquely effective in safeguarding religious liberty.

General Conscience Safeguard

In 1998, Mississippi passed a rare safeguard protecting health-care providers’ rights to refuse to participate in any procedure or service for reasons of conscience. In 2004, the Mississippi Health Care Rights of Conscience Act reiterated and expanded the protection of health-care providers and health-care payers who act according to their religious and moral beliefs from a variety of potential punishments, including criminal and civil liability claims. 

While some states protect health-care providers’ right to refuse participation in specific procedures—such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception—Mississippi is one of only five states that allows practitioners to refuse participation in any procedure that violates their conscience. Because this statute is open-ended in terms of the variety of procedures included, the types of providers covered, and the punishments precluded, it checks 20 out of 20 boxes for potential health-care safeguards in this year’s Index. Mississippi’s general conscience provision is more expansive than any other state’s, meaning health-care practitioners in Mississippi are freer to engage in their work in accordance with their religion compared to anywhere else in the United States.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

In 2014, Mississippi established a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which is a type of statute designed to protect the ability of individuals and organizations to exercise their religion when other laws inadvertently burden or restrict their ability to do so. Mississippi’s RFRA can be used to safeguard the religious liberty of people practicing minority religions and majority religions alike by giving those individuals legal standing in cases where they may otherwise lack protections.

So far, Mississippi’s RFRA safeguarded the freedom to attend drive-in church services, and in 2020, it expanded to include rights of Indian Tribal members to wear tribal regalia and other culturally significant objects at public events. For states looking to establish a RFRA or improve their current one, Mississippi provides a great example.

Protecting Private Businesses from Government Discrimination

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 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. This means that Mississippi is currently the only state where a small business owner like a baker or a photographer could decline to participate in a wedding for religious reasons and be protected by state law. This is a frontier of religious liberty protections and provides a model for other states who are interested in providing more protections for the private sector.

Mississippi’s Room for Improvement

While Mississippi has actively safeguarded religious liberty in many areas of life, there is more it can do to allow space for free exercise of religion. Its score of 82 percent is currently the highest in the nation, but the state is missing other protections that could help it earn an A+ grade in the future.

For example, Mississippi is one of only ten states that does not allow for absentee voting due to religious holidays or other religious reasons. Of the forty states that do offer some protections in the area of voting, the most flexible approach is to allow citizens to vote absentee without providing a reason for why they cannot vote in person, such as the recent Rhode Island bill signed into law just this year. Mississippi should consider passing similar voting protections to improve their score in this area.

Mississippi is also one of only five states that does not provide religious exemptions from immunizations requirements for school-aged children. Over the last five years, four states removed religious and/or personal belief exemptions from childhood immunization requirements, while others increased the burden of obtaining a valid exemption. Mississippi could counteract this trend by intentionally carving out space for parents to make choices that align with their religious beliefs. 

Safeguarding religious liberty encompasses more than simply securing the right to religious assembly and worship. For many people the ways they work, enjoy their families, engage with their communities, and participate in their civic responsibilities will reflect their religious beliefs. All states and elected officials should defend these First Amendment freedoms. The state of Mississippi deserves recognition for the important steps it has taken in these areas and for earning the top spot in our rankings in 2022.

Want to see where your state ranks? Check out the RLS index state ranking or access the 2022 RLS Full Report to learn more.