RealClear Religion: Religious Liberty Beyond Red and Blue Divides

Sarah Estelle

Editor’s Note: The following op-ed was published in RealClearReligion on September 16, 2022, and is authored by Sarah Estelle, director of Religious Liberty in the States, associate professor of economics at Hope College (Holland, MI), and the founding director of Hope’s Markets & Morality student program.

Many American voters head into midterm elections wearied by political polarization. Subjects that might have merely led to an uncomfortable dinner table conversation yesterday are more likely to be relationship-ending today. 

It’s often assumed that political positions come with a Democrat or Republican party label. But beneath many of the most divisive issues of our time – think the COVID-19 pandemic response, the 2020 election, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade – lies an issue that is neither red nor blue. Would you believe me if I said religious liberty is not actually a partisan issue? 

While religious liberty has long been perceived to be a “conservative” value, a careful study of state law helpfully complicates that simplistic narrative. A new project by the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy reveals a surprising reality: several traditionally blue states do a better job protecting religious liberty than many red states.  

The innovative project Religious Liberty in the States scores and ranks the 50 states on how well each protects religious liberty through state law. The project is a statistical index and comprehensive catalogue of legal safeguards for the free exercise of religion, covering 29 items in total, including protections for religious exemptions for school immunization requirements; businesses to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings; absentee voting on religious holidays; health care provisions that allow for provider refusal of abortion, sterilization, and contraception; and many others.

As the index finds, the evolution of state law on religious liberty issues has resulted in no clear partisan divide. There are both red and blue states at the top and bottom of the rankings. “Red” Mississippi ranked first, followed closely by “blue” Illinois. Texas, known for its strong evangelical voter base, is smack dab in the middle. While a few of the bluest states rank in the bottom three – California (48th) and New York (50th) – other blue states such as Washington (5th), Maryland (8th), Connecticut (11th), and Maine (14th) scored in the top third. Presidential politics and political stereotypes simply cannot explain the pattern of religious protections at the state level. 

Read the entire op-ed in RealClear Religion here.