What Is the Religious Liberty in the States Index & How Does It Work?

rls map

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution establishes that people have the right to freely exercise their religion. However, where states have jurisdiction or federal laws are silent, states have the opportunity to protect certain aspects of the free exercise of religion for people in their everyday lives. While many states have passed laws securing at least some provisions and exemptions for religious expression, some states do more than others.

The variation in protections from state to state means that a person’s ability to live according to their religious beliefs greatly depends on which state they live in. With the inaugural Religious Liberty in the States (RLS) index, you can find out where your state ranks for religious liberty, which rights your state protects, and which rights it does not.

How Is the RLS Index Different from Other Indexes?

The RLS index is a measure of laws and constitutional safeguards for religious exercise in the fifty states. Unlike other indexes of religious liberty, this indicates the extent to which written law allows people to live according to their religious beliefs, rather than assessing what people do with religious liberty or attitudes toward religion in the states.

This measure of the space in which people can freely live according to their religion highlights the ways states currently uphold commitments to religious liberty, as well as the areas where opportunities for improvement exist within state law. And because RLS does so with a focus on formal, recorded law, there are clear steps for a state that wants to see improvement. A concerned citizen can share the information about the state from RLS with their elected representatives. Then state legislatures can write new laws, even making use of what their peers have accomplished in the relevant safeguard area.

How Does the RLS Index Measure Safeguards of Religious Liberty?

The RLS index uses existing state laws as data. If even one state’s statutes identify an area of life as religiously relevant, those laws are candidates for analysis by RLS. (More of the selection criterion related to feasibility and objective measurement can be read in the RLS 2022 report and on the website under Methodology.) For each data point (state law) included in the Index, it is determined to either safeguard religious liberty (score 1) or not (score 0).

For 2022, the RLS index includes twenty-nine items that contribute to eleven distinct safeguards, which have been placed into six groups:

  1. Absentee Voting
  2. Childhood Immunization Requirements
  3. Health-Care Provisions
  4. Health Insurance Mandate (specifically regarding contraception)
  5. Marriage & Weddings
  6. Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The laws that comprise these safeguards are those that can be understood and scored objectively and are operable in light of current federal law. The averaged score of the eleven safeguards yields each state’s overall score (as a percentage), and those overall scores were used to determine the state rankings.

For example, the top-ranked state is Mississippi with a score of 82 percent (fully realizing nine out of eleven safeguards), while the forty-third-ranked state is New Hampshire with a score of 27 percent (realizing at least parts of three out of eleven safeguards). See where your state ranks here.

How Could the RLS Index Change Over Time?

The Index will be updated annually to reflect changes in specific statutes, account for the adjustment in jurisdiction and balance of legislative power between the state and federal jurisdictions, and add new items as they prove feasible. For example, we anticipate new statutory laws and amendments to state constitutions in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, meaning that the 2023 version of the RLS index will be updated accordingly.

Another item to look at will be how states conduct their 2022 elections as it relates to absentee voting. What the Index looks for in the area of absentee voting is if a person has alternative ways to vote should Election Day fall on a religious holiday or for other religious reasons. If a state conducts all-mail elections, for example, the Index will not be concerned whether the state explicitly lists religion as an excuse for absentee voting. A state that has all-mail elections or no-excuse absentee voting obtains the same score on that item as one that has strict protocols for absentee voting but allows for religion as a qualifying excuse. Since the implications of any of these approaches are ultimately the same for the free exercise of religion, so are the scores that states earn from them. You can learn more about the topic of religious exemptions for absentee voting here.

As the legislative landscape continues to evolve, the RLS index can continually grow and adapt to reflect the reality of religious liberty in the states. After a few annual iterations of the RLS index, people will be able to track how a state has increased the space for the free exercise of religion or shrunk it over time. We hope that the RLS index is a useful tool for people to learn about the legal safeguard for their religious liberty and gives them a starting point to advocate for improved safeguards in their states.
Interested in learning more about how RLS 2022 works? See our methodology page or download the full report for more information.