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Just-Released Report Outlines Troubling Trend Toward Religious Extremism in State Legislatures

Washington, D.C. — American Atheists released the sixth edition of its State of the Secular States report today. The organization’s annual policy publication is an in-depth analysis of state-level legislative attacks against religious equality and the separation of religion and government. Many of the political forecasts outlined in State of the Secular States have proven accurate over the years, and it has become a powerful tool for lawmakers, the media, and advocates to understand the nationwide trajectory toward religious extremism.

“Last year was one of the worst legislative sessions in recent memory,” explained Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists and author of the report. “We tracked a record number of bills attacking civil rights, and in state after state, we saw protections for LGBTQ people and access to abortion care set back decades. A well-funded network of religious lobbying groups succeeded in proliferating harmful, hateful policies and decimating our most foundational democratic norms. With the 2024 election season looming, it’s likely these trends will not only continue but intensify over the next year.”

The report shows religious extremism in government is no longer a rare occurrence in the United States but a dominant theme enjoying the explicit and unprecedented endorsement of the Supreme Court and powerful political leaders, up to and including the Speaker of the House. Even as the majority of Americans continue to oppose the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion policies and ideologies of White Christian nationalists, American Atheists finds more and more bills are being introduced and passed.

Rob Hofmann, State Policy Manager at American Atheists, said, “As we head into a new legislative session and a major election year, I hope religious and nonreligious Americans alike will vigilantly safeguard their civil rights from a few on the fringe. Although the circumstances are dire, 2024 is also an opportunity for our growing community of atheists and other nonreligious people to make real, meaningful gains to enact policies and elect leaders that protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans and our democratic institutions.”

In 2023, American Atheists monitored over 1,600 bills across the country that would either enhance or harm religious equality. The State of the Secular States report further analyzes existing laws and proposed policies by state and into four categories: Constitutional & Nondiscrimination Protections, Special Privileges for Religion, Health Care & Wellness, and Education & Youth. All 50 states—plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C—are then assessed on a three-tier scale from those that strongly protect religious equality to those that actively undermine it. This year’s report shows nearly two dozen states have several laws establishing religious exemptions or special privileges for religion and provide few protections for the separation of religion and government.

The organization noted an abrupt and alarming increase in the number of religiously motivated bills targeting trans young people. For example, in 2023 alone, 19 states passed laws preventing trans youth from receiving appropriate and medically necessary health care. The report also documents a dramatic increase in the scale and scope of policies that would insert religion into public schools or divert public dollars to fund religious schools. While some of the more egregious efforts have been blocked by litigation, it is evident a number of judges are willing to uphold discriminatory laws.

According to the report, the outlook for 2024 is grim: “Driven by partisan politics during a general election year, lawmakers will continue to politicize civil rights issues in order to distinguish themselves and distract from failed economic policy. Meanwhile, legislative majorities in various contested states seem intent on eroding democracy to maintain electoral imbalances and insulate themselves from democratic accountability.”

In the year ahead, American Atheists anticipates more manufactured moral panic and attempts to rewrite history; the continued use of smokescreens and dog-whistle euphemisms like “religious freedom” and “parental rights” to defend invidious discrimination; and additional attacks on bodily autonomy, health care, public schools, and the LGBTQ community. The watchdog group contends this multi-front offensive will undermine secular democracy and cause real, lasting harm to millions.

“White Christian nationalists are undoubtedly going to keep pushing their culture war agenda in state legislatures and on the campaign trail,” said Nick Fish, President of American Atheists. “We know their goals and strategies, and we believe they can be stopped. But the media and the public need to understand what’s at stake in 2024 are not only protections for women, LGBTQ people, racial and religious minorities, and atheists, but the civil rights of all Americans.”

The 2024 State of the Secular States also features expert commentary from Darcy Hirsh, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at Interfaith Alliance; Maggie Garrett, Vice President of Public Policy, Americans United for Separation of Church and State; and Angela Grimberg and Samantha Field, respectively the Executive Director and Government Relations Director of Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

View the full report at the State of the Secular States website.