Because religious liberty matters, so does careful measurement of its component parts and causal factors. Objectivity is critical for meaningful measurement and consistent with the highest standard of research integrity.

RLS is further committed to transparency, providing rationale for choices where they have been made. This website also provides free access to everything from the raw data of this project (safeguard pages link directly to relevant locations in state laws) to the scores that comprise the Index. (Our full dataset is available for download.)

An appreciation for pluralism has motivated this project. Objectivity should allow the broadest audience to make use of this project. Similarly, transparency should facilitate both evaluative and generative engagement with the work of RLS and ultimately contribute to the important conversation about religious liberty in the United States.

RLS’s Notion
of Liberty

Appendix A, available in the full report, explains in much greater detail what we mean by “liberty.” We adopt the term “safeguard” to describe state laws that provide freedom from artificial barriers that would otherwise reduce one’s capacity for religious exercise.

Even among those who agree that liberty is a means not an end, we submit that this sort of liberty is an essential precondition for facilitating other goods and a person’s ability to pursue his or her ultimate purpose.

What States

Appendix B of our report explains in detail how the dataset for RLS 2022 was constructed, including how elements of state laws were selected, scored, and aggregated in this first year’s Index.

Rather than predefine a topical scope for religious exercise, RLS considers as candidate items anything that arises in any state and that references religion in making an exclusion or exemption in its law. In this way we allow states to reveal which aspects of American life are religiously relevant rather than using a philosophical, theoretical, or value-oriented definition of what areas of the law might impinge upon free exercise.

of Written Law

Taking together this project’s conception of liberty and its goal of objectivity, RLS constructs an index and state ranking that ultimately reflect the reality that states differ in their distinct legal provisions for free exercise.

While it is also likely that states differ in other ways that provide more or less space to people of faith, measuring the legal safeguards has a number of advantages over alternative measures (e.g., the attitudes of one’s neighbors, accepted social norms, or religious stigma), providing greater accuracy and practical utility.

First, laws are written and publicly recorded and thus manifest two necessary conditions for the transparency and objectivity to which RLS is committed.

Second, what we learn from an index derived from such laws can illuminate practical opportunities for improving the space for free exercise. For example, a low score from an index measuring legal safeguards of religious liberty will point directly to feasible means for improvement.

Selecting Items
for RLS 2022

Potential index items are all objectively measurable state statutory or constitutional laws that provide for religious entities (persons, organizations, communities, or businesses). For this first year of the Index, we reduced the set of safeguards to those that

  1. can be plainly read, such that
  2. one can know whether the safeguard exists and
  3. that it is not simply required by federal law (that is, superseded).

From Laws
to Data

State statutes and in limited cases constitutional provisions comprise the majority of the data for this project. 

For each piece of data (a law in a state), the RLS team assigns a lettered code that reflects the way in which a state engages (or does not) in that area. Those codes are converted to numerical scores based on whether the code is consistent with a safeguard (score = 1) or not (score = 0).

The resulting index score—the sum of all the individual safeguard scores earned by a state—is a single number for each state that permits a ranking of the states on all the areas included.

A glossary defines these terms further and the publicly available data file reports all codes, score, and statutory citations for each item of the data.

An Invitation

We invite interested scholars and data-informed advocates to make the case that religious liberty matters.

The Index can be correlated with other state-level measures so that researchers can enhance the collective understanding of the factors that predict legal protection of religious liberty and its potential consequences (e.g., social stability, economic development, religious pluralism, charitable giving, and religiosity).

In future years with data reflecting changes in states’ laws, researchers can consider time trends, both across the country as a whole and within states. Advocates can provide information to lawmakers using insights on a state’s relative ranking, the change in the ranking over time, or the components of the Index where the state falls short in its protections.

Photo by K.G. Hawes. License.