Religious liberty for all
The latest study debunks the idea that religious freedom is a partisan issue, exclusively reserved for white evangelicals. Although not a perfect reality, the index demonstrates the bipartisan and ecumenical nature of religious liberty in the U.S.
Jonathan Den Hertog, a professor and chair of the Department of History at Samford University, said he appreciated the way the index showed that religious liberty protections are not simply a “blue” or “red” issue.
“This fundamental liberty needs the bipartisan support of all Americans to remain a vital force in American public life,” Den Hertog said.
Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center Campus Free Expression Project, agreed with Den Hertog on the bipartisan appeal of religious liberty.
“Religious freedom issues,” she said, “affect people on the left and right.”
Uddin also said religious freedom is a bipartisan issue. However, she said that there are many aspects of the index that do not reflect bipartisan support.
“There are lots of exemptions-related information, particularly in the marriage and healthcare context that are not bipartisan,” Uddin said.
While some left-of-center organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, promote a belief that religious freedom in the public square justifies Christian bigotry and anti-gay discrimination, throughout history, religious minorities have benefited the most from such protections.
Merrill said minorities are the most vulnerable to having their freedoms infringed upon.
“Religious freedom is not exclusive to any particular creed, sect or spiritual community,” Merrill said.
The Muslim community in the United States is an excellent example of this. According to Uddin, the importance of religious freedom and relevance of CRCD’s Index for American Muslim lies particularly in three issues: Whether the state has a RFRA, whether it permits schools absences for religious observance (since most school districts are open on Muslim holidays) and provisions for religious ceremonial life.
“One of the main concerns many Muslims have is the availability of opt-out provisions to public school curricula on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Uddin said. “And that is not accounted for in the index.”
Setting the standard
While there are similar initiatives, including Becket’s Religious Freedom Index and Alliance Defending Freedom’s Business Index, CRCD’s Religious Liberty in the States Index is a leader in the field. It’s the only religious freedom survey that uses quantitative methods to compare data on the impacts of laws.
Dimsdale said he’s is proud of the center’s flagship research project. He said he believes that the index is rigorously vetted and methodologically sound.
“Each year, it has been through a peer review process that involves reviewers that have expertise in quantitative and qualitative methods of research, law, economics, and politics,” he said. “The methodology is straightforward and free from as many subjective variables as possible.”
Earlier this year, the Napa Legal Institute launched the Faith and Freedom Index that scores state laws that affect faith-based, federally tax-exempt nonprofits. Despite this, Ballor said that the CRCD’s Index is still unique.
“There is nothing else like it. The RLS Index is the most comprehensive, ambitious and robust project out there,” Ballor said.
In addition to setting the standard in the field of measuring religious freedom, the index also serves a practical purpose. Policymakers and legislators can use the index to suggest religious freedom reforms they can implement.
Den Hertog said citizens can also benefit from the index.
“Citizens can identify practical steps they can take in their state to improve religious freedom protections,” Den Hertog said.
According to Dimsdale, individuals affiliated with the CRCD were directly contacted by lobbyists and state legislators from several states. Without providing specific details, Dimsdale said, that “in the past year, West Virginia and North Dakota passed RFRA and Arkansas passed new protections for voter rights. We are certain that in some of those places, our Index had a direct impact by highlighting areas missing in state law.”
Despite being only three years old, the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy’s leadership has big plans for the future. Turning the Religious Liberty in the States Index into a recognizable brand is among the group’s top priorities going forward.
The second annual edition saw an increase in safeguards: From 11 to 14 and a change of leadership. Sarah Estelle, the project’s founding director and the creator of index’s statistical and data-driven framework, has been succeeded by Mark David Hall, a political scientist and professor at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government.
Hall told Religion Unplugged: “We plan to uphold the methodology pioneered by Dr. Estelle, as it has been the cornerstone of our success. My primary goal will be to ensure the incorporation of modern safeguards that align with the Founding Fathers’ vision of religious freedom for all Americans.”
Ballor shares this vision, aiming for a more robust index with additional safeguards.
“Our goal is to carefully include as many safeguards as possible. We will continue to evaluate existing and incoming state laws, analyzing the possibility of including them in future reports,” Ballor said.
Considering the early success of the index, Dimsdale said he’s contemplating the possibility of conducting a similar project in Europe.
“Producing a detailed religious freedom ranking for the European Union members would be a challenging task for various reasons: Different political and legal systems, different languages. … It would be such an innovative project, allowing the CRCD to make a transatlantic contribution.”
Lilla Nora Kiss, a Hungarian legal expert based in Washington, D.C. and a visiting scholar at Antonin Scalia Law School, said she believes that such a project could provide valuable insights into the diverse landscape of religious liberty in the E.U. member states.
“The unique tapestry of the European Union encompasses a range of historical contexts that shape approaches to religious freedom,” Kiss said. “This project would need to carefully consider and account for variations between states, such as secularism as a cornerstone of governance in France or the state church in Sweden. If executed correctly, such an initiative could serve as a catalyst for informed discussions, policy proposals, and the reinforcement of religious liberties in the European Union.”