Hobby Lobby and Church/State ‘Separation’–the True Meaning

Published on July 1, 2014

by Jennifer Roback Morse
Clash Daily Guest Contributor

I am relieved that the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision is not the train-wreck I feared. Some closely-held family businesses will be able to obtain religious exemptions from covering abortifacients in their government-mandated health care plans. But before we get too excited (and I must confess, I am somewhat excited!) let’s review what the separation of Church and State is coming to mean in our country.

The true meaning of Church State separation came to me a few weeks ago, while I was in dialogue with a caller on “Catholic Answers Live.” The caller opined that the State should get out of marriage and leave it all to the Church. I asked him a series of questions, to show him that this was not a realistic plan.

“So, you think the Church should be allowed to decide which weddings they will solemnize?”

“That’s right.”

“And the Church should be allowed to decide which of its members can get divorced?”


“And the Church should be allowed to decide whether divorced people can receive Communion.”


“What about property settlement after a divorce: should the Church be allowed to have jurisdiction over the division of property?”


“How about child custody? Should the Church be allowed to decide child custody after divorce?”


“Why not?”

Long pause. No answer.

And then, I said, “Sir, even if you thought the Church should be allowed to settle property and child custody, do you seriously believe the State would allow the Church to have jurisdiction over that?”

want_freedomOnly after the program was over, did the pattern become fully clear to me: the caller (and the State) will allow the Church to be independent of the State, but only for things they think don’t matter.

We the State, allow you the Church, to have jurisdiction over who gets to receive Communion and Christian burial. That is because we consider those things unimportant.
But we the State, intend to have full authority over everything we consider important, like property settlements and child custody. And, as a matter of fact, if there is anything else we come to believe is important, we will take jurisdiction over that too.

And so here we are, with a relatively favorable ruling from the Supreme Court on the Hobby Lobby case. The Supreme Court has restrained the Administration from imposing upon the Mennonite Hahn family, owners of Conestoga Wood, or the Evangelical Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, in as catastrophic way as they might have. But the State has certainly not given up its authority over religious institutions and religious people, when they deem the subject matter sufficiently important.

But Justice Alito’s argument turns on the idea that the “compelling interest” of the government that led to the mandate in the first place, can be met through some “less restrictive means.” Today’s ruling does not challenge the government’s claim to be in the contraception-providing-mandating-and-promoting business. Not in any way. The Government still believes that making sure women have all the FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices they want, at no cost, is a “compelling interest.” In other words, we think it is important, so we intend to be in charge of it.

Please note: The State is daily expanding its concept of what is important. The State has already decided that it is important to them how our adoption agencies operate: they have shut down quite a few. The State has already decided that the leadership of college campus clubs is important to them in the Christian Legal Society v Martinez case.

Most Americans thought that Separation of Church and State meant that the State had to leave us alone. Come to find out, it means that the Church must leave the State alone. The State gets to determine what the Church is allowed to do. The State permits us to have control over unimportant things, while it gets to have control over important things.

And the State gets to decide what is important and unimportant.

This landmark case gives the legal arm of the social conservative movement more room to maneuver in crafting further appeals. But please understand: our legal folks will still be going to the State, with their hats in their hands, begging for this accommodation or that.

The real work of educating and motivating the public must go on, at an even deeper level than before. Our People in the Pews need to realize exactly what manner of government we are dealing with. Building on this victory demands that we be clear about what our opponents really think and where we really stand.

Jennifer Roback Morse Ph.D. is the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, which seeks to inspire the Victims and Survivors of the Sexual Revolution. She blogs at www.ruthblog.org.

Image: Courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fanofretail/8772759259/