By Jonah McKeown
The U.S. state with the greatest number of religious freedom safeguards is Illinois, while the state with the fewest safeguards is West Virginia, according to a new analysis.
First Liberty Institute, a Texas Christian nonprofit legal organization specializing in religious liberty cases, released its analysis Wednesday ranking all 50 states based on how free its residents are to practice their faith.
This is the second year that First Liberty has released an analysis of this type, and the 2023 index covers laws up to Dec. 31, 2022. The methodology for this year was similar to the first, with researchers narrowing the index down to 29 separate laws across 14 safeguarding categories.
The majority of those categories have to do with protections for medical professionals, allowing them to opt out of participating in abortions, sterilizations, and contraception. Other categories include laws that allow clergy or officials to opt out of marriage ceremonies, laws that allow for the use of alcohol by minors in religious ceremonies, and laws that protect religion-related excused absences for school children. Also considered are laws concerning absentee voting — whether states have laws that recognize religious holidays as a legitimate reason to vote by absentee ballot, for example.
Illinois, South Carolina, and New Mexico took the top three spots overall, with Illinois having legal safeguards on the books in 85% of the categories that First Liberty studied. That score is 18 percentage points higher than the second state, South Carolina, at 67%. Nineteen of the 20 health-care-related safeguards were present in Illinois; however, three states — Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas — have all 20.
Several states near the top of the list were clustered in the Rust Belt and the South, and to a lesser extent in the West — in addition to New Mexico, Washington state ranked sixth and Utah 11th.
Despite average and median state scores increasing this year versus 2022, “the vast majority of states grant less than half of the potential safeguards,” the researchers opined.
On the medical side, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington have all enacted “general conscience provisions,” which do not specify the type of medical care covered but offer protection to those who refuse to take part in any medical services that are contrary to their beliefs.
Since last year’s report, two states, South Carolina and Rhode Island, made improvements to their health care conscience provisions and absentee voting laws, respectively. Connecticut regressed, eliminating a religious exemption from its childhood immunization requirement, with a statutory change that took full effect in the fall of 2022.
A state’s reputation, earned or not, of being either “red” or “blue” was not a good predictor of how well it protects religious freedom. The top state, Illinois, has been Democratic Party-led for years, while West Virginia is, on the whole, conservative.
Last year’s top state, Mississippi, fell slightly in the rankings, to fourth place. Last year’s bottom-ranked state was New York, which rose four spots in 2023.
The country’s largest state by population, California, performed poorly in the analysis, ranking 48th. However, Texas, which is not far behind in population, didn’t fare much better. Its ranking was 42nd.
A trio of New England states sat near the bottom of the list: New York at 46th, Vermont at 47th, and New Hampshire at 49th.
To view the entire study and learn about its methodology, visit the First Liberty Institute’s website.