New report helps keep an eye on religious freedom in the states

Written by William C. Duncan

September 23, 2022

Recent posts on cases in Indiana and New York highlighted important religious freedom controversies at the state level. Even though much of our attention focuses on federal disputes, most of the regulations that raise religious freedom concerns for religious organizations and people of faith happen at the state level. So it’s important to pay attention to what is happening in the states.

A recent report from the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy at the First Liberty Institute provides some of this attention.

The report, Religious Liberty in the States, examines 11 religious freedom “legal safeguards.” Specifically, the report looks at the following:

  • Opportunity for absentee voting (to avoid conflicts with religious observance)
  • Religious exemptions from childhood immunization requirements
  • General conscience protections in the context of health care
  • Specific protection of the right to decline to participate in abortions, sterilization and contraception
  • Protection of religious employers from a mandate to provide contraceptives in their health insurance plans
  • Protection of religious groups’ ability to choose which marriages and weddings they will participate in
  • Ability of public officials to recuse themselves from solemnizing weddings inconsistent with their beliefs
  • Protection of businesses with religious missions from being forced to participate in weddings inconsistent with their beliefs
  • Passage of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act

So how does Utah do?

Pretty well. It is ranked sixth, behind Mississippi, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington. Utah does not have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which specifies that governments cannot burden religious beliefs without narrowly tailoring those burdens to meet an overwhelming government need (like protecting public health or human life). Utah’s law also does not contain many conscience protections in the health care context.

The ranking, though, obscures some important variation among the top states. Both Mississippi and Illinois have more than 80% of the measured safeguards. The next four states have much lower percentages (New Mexico has 60.82%, Florida has 58.01%, Washington has 52.16%, and Utah has 51.95%).

The center’s director notes that there are some limitations in the report’s data: “It does not measure nor does it purport to measure the experience of religious liberty for Americans in their everyday lives. It does not examine the cultural attitudes either for or against religious expressions of faith in America. It does not look at the protections of or challenges to religious liberty at the level of cities, counties, or regions.” Nevertheless, knowing the formal laws of religious liberty at the state level is an excellent starting point for citizens.

In Utah, legislators would probably note some important recent legislation to promote students’ religious observances and dress. This is important even though it was not reflected in the ranked measures.

Citizens reading this report should also look at other indicators like state court decisions, efforts to avoid religious freedom conflicts, treatment of religious schools, etc. Just as a medical chart does not measure every relevant indicator, there are more religious freedom indicia than are measured in this report. But the ones that are chosen are a good general indicator of the state’s religious freedom “health.”

The report’s attention to these indicators of the climate of religious freedom in the United States will be helpful in additional efforts to understand and, where needed, improve that climate.

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