Announcing RLS 2022’s Runner-up State: Illinois


Illinois has a wide range of state laws protecting the free exercise of religion—some that have been on the books for decades, and others that have been implemented recently—earning the second-highest score of all fifty states in the inaugural Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) rankings.

With a score of 81 percent, Illinois falls just behind Mississippi’s score (82 percent), but this photo finish puts both states far ahead of the third-place finisher, New Mexico (61 percent). In fact, Illinois’ score puts it far ahead of other states with large populations, such as New York (16 percent), California (19 percent), and Texas (39 percent).

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 just some of the state laws, both old and new, that make Illinois such a great place for religious liberty in 2022.

General Conscience Safeguard

Illinois has been on the forefront of general conscience safeguards in health care for nearly fifty years. In 1977, Illinois enacted its first version of the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which protects private and public health-care facilities and personnel from participating in any phase of patient care that conflicts with their conscience, except in the case of emergencies. Not only are health-care providers granted a legal right to refuse, but they are protected from any civil or criminal liability claims as well as government punishments. 

Additionally, this act protects health-care payers and, in effect, provides an exemption for religious employers who would otherwise be subject to Illinois’ contraceptive mandate. 

In terms of religious liberty, Illinois offers good statutory health-care conscience protections because it allows all health-care providers to work freely in accordance with their consciences, morals, or the tenets of their faith without repercussion. Notably, a person could ascribe to any religion or none at all and still be protected by these general conscience safeguards.

Because Illinois’ statutes uphold the right for health-care providers, personnel, and payers to live according to conscience, they check 19 out of 20 boxes for potential health-care safeguards in this year’s Index. 

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

After the Supreme Court verdict in City of Boerne v. Flores limited federal religious freedom protections in 1997, Illinois enacted its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1998. RFRA statutes are designed to protect the ability of religious people to exercise their religion when other laws, even if inadvertently, would burden or restrict their ability to do so. Illinois’ RFRA establishes a heightened standard of review so that a law that would “substantially burden” religious exercise may only do so if it both “[furthers] a compelling governmental interest” and does so in “the least restrictive” way.

Illinois’ RFRA (and others like it) can safeguard a wide variety of religious activities from government burden, especially religious minorities who may rely on RFRA provisions to protect expressions of their religious beliefs not yet protected by specific statutory safeguards.

Illinois’ Room for Improvement

Illinois is one of only three states that safeguards at least some people in all six safeguard groups measured by the RLS 2022 index (the other two being Florida and Connecticut). However, if Illinois wants to challenge Mississippi for the top spot in the rankings in the future, there are several safeguards the state could implement or expand.

For one, the state does not extend its safeguarding of health-care practioners’ consciences when an abortion is demanded in the case of emergency. This is the only health-care safeguard tracked by our Index that Illinois does not currently secure.

The area where Illinois has the most room for improvement is in marriage and weddings. While the state offers protections for clergy and religious organizations, it does not extend the same protections for public officials or private businesses. This means that a minister could refuse to participate in a wedding for religious reasons and be protected by state law, but a caterer who would like to refuse to participate would not be extended the same protection. A strong example the state could look to is Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, which ensures 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.” 

Illinois’ long history of protecting religious liberty has set an excellent example for other states to follow. The focus on protecting the right to act according to one’s conscience, rather than requiring a religious rationale, allows for broad protections for all its citizens to live according to their beliefs. The state of Illinois narrowly missed out on taking the top spot in 2022 but still deserves recognition for its accomplishments. 

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