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Mary Margaret Beecher Opinion: New Index Ranks States’ Friendliness to Faith-Based Nonprofits”

Should people of faith be allowed to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs?

The answer should be a resounding yes. Yet, tragically, people of faith have been suffering for years, as proponents of anti-religious secular agendas seek to drive people of faith out of the public square or force them to compromise their consciences to fit in. Take Lorie Smith, for example, a Colorado web designer fighting for the Supreme Court to affirm her freedom to perform her job as an artist without violating her religious beliefs.

Only a few cases like Lorie’s case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, advance all the way to the Supreme Court. But threats to faith and freedom occur every day at the state and local level – not only to people of faith, but also to faith-based organizations.

These threats harm the work of faith-based organizations and, consequently, weaken our communities. We must rebuild by making faith-based organizations part of the conversation again. We rebuild by supporting them not just through “thoughts and prayers” but also through practical action.

This is why Napa Legal has developed the Faith and Freedom Index, an unprecedented study of each state’s friendliness to faith-based nonprofits. The Index, which will be updated annually, analyzes and scores both religious freedom and regulatory freedom on a state-by-state basis.

(link “Faith and Freedom Index” to https://www.napalegalinstitute.org/map)

The Index’s premise is simple: Private associations, and especially faith-based nonprofits, are an integral part of the cultural and charitable works that distinguish American society. If we value the work of faith-based nonprofits, our laws must reflect that. Our laws must protect and promote – not penalize and persecute – this work.

The Faith and Freedom Index scores all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.) on fourteen factors, each of which concretely impacts the operations of faith-based nonprofits. The factors include both hot-button items like state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, as well as less glamorous but similarly impactful items like state tax laws and fundraising regulations. States that protect and promote the work of faith-based nonprofits receive high scores; states that burden and deter such work receive low scores.

The religious freedom score measures the extent to which a state protects faith-based nonprofits’ freedom to do their work in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Alabama and Texas lead the religious freedom category. Alabama’s constitution requires burdens on religious freedom to pass the most rigorous legal tests. Texas provides similar religious freedom safeguards, while also expressly protecting religious worship through a state constitutional amendment. In contrast, Nevada and Maryland receive low scores, due to weak and ambiguous protections for faith-based nonprofits’ religious freedom.

The regulatory freedom category focuses on the practical: How much red tape must a faith-based nonprofit endure to operate in the state?

This category brings many surprises. The Pacific Northwest took home the top rankings. States like Oregon and Montana received nearly perfect scores, as did Indiana in the Midwest. These states feature flexible tax regimes and straightforward fundraising laws. Low regulatory freedom scores went to Michigan and Wisconsin. These states feature a combination of onerous fundraising regulations and tax requirements, with only narrow exemptions for tax-exempt nonprofits.

States’ religious freedom and regulatory freedom scores – the two ingredients that define the landscape in which faith-based nonprofits operate – combine to form the states’ overall scores.

Alabama and Texas, the leaders for religious liberty, also earned top scores overall. These states offer both robust protections for religious freedom and straightforward, practical administrative regimes. Perhaps surprisingly, California, Napa Legal’s state of incorporation, scores in the middle of the pack. Low overall scores went to Maryland, Michigan, and Nevada, which pair unnecessarily burdensome regulatory requirements with a lack of clear protections for faith-based nonprofits.

The bottom line is that if we value the institutions that do the work of protecting and promoting our values, our laws must facilitate this work. The Faith and Freedom Index indicates where we must improve and how.

Mary Margaret Beecher is executive director of Napa Legal Institute. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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