How RLS Has Expanded in the Project’s Second Year


Religious liberty, a core freedom protected by the First Amendment, allows individuals to practice their chosen religion without restriction by the government. It also extends to the right to express religious beliefs through speech, writing, and other forms of expression. Despite the fact that this important freedom is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, it is largely up to each state to protect religious liberty within its borders, leading to fifty different sets of laws. State governments have taken very different approaches to this task of protecting religious liberty, leading to differences in how people experience this protection across the nation.

Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) is an annual research project that ranks states on their religious liberty policies. RLS formulates a statistical index based on an assessment of state laws and policies related to religious liberty. The inaugural RLS 2022 project, which was the first-ever index of such domestic safeguards, proved particularly useful for those seeking to understand the extent of religious liberty protections and identify where improvements can be made to strengthen religious liberty on a state-by-state basis.

The second year of RLS is a noteworthy development for the project, as it marks the first time that new safeguards were identified and changes in law were tracked over time. By establishing a foundation in its first two years of operation, the RLS project has created a platform for ongoing analysis and growth in the field of religious liberty protections. 

How Did the Index Change from 2022 to 2023?

The project tracks changes in state laws and policies from year to year and identifies new safeguards for the index. As the project grows, it is important to note that a state’s RLS score can change for two main reasons: changes in the state’s laws between the two years, or changes in the composition of what the index measures. If a state’s score changes due to changes in laws, it will have a tangible impact on residents, while changes due to the composition of the index will only affect the score and not necessarily the experience of the residents. It is important to understand the differences between these two sources of change in order to accurately compare states and improvements over time.

RLS expanded its scope this year to include three new safeguards, bringing the total to fourteen safeguards, which have been placed into seven groups:

  1. Absentee Voting
  2. Health-Care Provisions
  3. Health Insurance Mandate (specifically regarding contraception)
  4. Marriage & Weddings
  5. Religious Ceremonial Life
  6. Religious Freedom Restoration Act
  7. School-Aged Children

Learn more about all of the safeguards, including the three new ones, here

The top two states in the 2023 RLS index, Illinois and South Carolina, are great examples of the two different reasons a state’s score can change. Illinois made no changes to the eleven original safeguards, but improved its score because it had all of the new items within the RLS 2023’s three new safeguards in place. While South Carolina also improved its score due to the new items, most of its improvement came from implementing into law a new general conscience provision for health-care providers.

How Do the Results Compare?

2023 saw more states with higher scores compared to 2022. Thirteen states scored above 50 percent in 2023, compared to only nine in the previous year. The average and median score also increased from 2022 to 2023. However, most of this apparent improvement can be explained by the composition of the three new safeguards, which are more commonly found in the states than the items in the RLS 2022.

Only three states made changes to the original eleven safeguards of RLS 2022 in time for the 2023 data collection. South Carolina and Rhode Island improved their laws, while Connecticut regressed by eliminating the religious exemption from its childhood immunization requirement. Signs suggest that state legislative action is increasing in the fourteen safeguard areas, and these changes will be seen in the RLS 2024 data and scores.

When making a comparison between RLS scores across years, it is important to understand the differences in the components of each index, as the composition of the index has changed. This means that we cannot make an apples-to-apples comparison between the scores from one year to the next, as the score may be a result of the new components being in place rather than changes to the original safeguards. However, this does not mean that we cannot compare the scores, as we can still clearly identify the areas that allow us to make valid apples-to-apples comparisons.

Our hope for this project is that the RLS index would not only be a tool for comparing the fifty states in a given year, but that over the course of a few years, the RLS index can give people insight into how religious liberty in a state has expanded or decreased over time. This knowledge can better equip people to advocate for improved safeguards in their state. With the publication of the second annual RLS index, people all over the United States can begin to do just that.

Interested in learning more about how RLS 2023 works? See our methodology page or download the executive summary for more information.