Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Religious freedom in Pennsylvania is good but could be better

Pennsylvania

Editor’s Note: The following op-ed was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 14, 2022, and is authored by Jordan Ballor, director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy at First Liberty Institute.

Pennsylvania came in 12th among the states, tied with Alabama. But it was second in the mid-Atlantic region, behind 8th place Maryland. That’s its rank in how well it is doing in protecting the rights of diverse religious adherents, as measured in a new index of safeguards of religious exercise across the fifty states.

Religious freedom is in the state’s DNA. The colony of Pennsylvania was founded in 1681, when William Penn was given a royal charter by King Charles II of England. Penn’s Quaker convictions led him to view this project as a “holy experiment,” intended to show that adherents of different religious sects and confessions could fruitfully co-exist.

The early years of this experiment were fraught. But a century later Pennsylvania’s first state constitution would declare “that all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding.”

A significant contributor to Pennsylvania’s score is the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in 2002. Pennsylvania is one of only 23 states to have taken such action to restrict the burden that state laws can place on religious expression and exercise. While many of the issues covered by the index relate to specific concerns about health care or marriage, RFRAs protect religious believers of all kinds from all kinds of government imposition.

Pennsylvania also protects the rights of parents to exempt their children from immunizations that violate their beliefs, a safeguard dating back decades. Pennsylvania’s absentee voting policy protects the voting rights of religious believers of whatever creed or confession who object to going to a polling place on a particular day.

Some of the other safeguards instantiated in Pennsylvania law are of more recent vintage, though, or are the result of shifting federal contexts. Pennsylvania’s lack of a state-level contraceptive mandate for employers, deriving from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, is notable. This requirement was made famous by a Pennsylvania lawsuit that was sparked by an ultimately failed attempt to impose the mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order.

Pennsylvania is doing better than most of its peers in protecting the space for varied religious expression. But a state that began as an experiment in religious liberty can do more.

Read the entire op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.