The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property Before the Civil War
The rights and responsibilities of religious institutions are hotly debated in the early twenty-first century. Liberal separationists argue that religious organizations should be subject to secular laws regarding labor, health care (including access to birth control), child protection, and more. Their opponents counter that the ideals of “church autonomy” or “the freedom of the church” exempt religious organizations from legal, administrative, or legislative oversight. The standoff is exacerbated by the opposing interpretations of history on offer. Former presidential candidate, talk show host (and historian) Newt Gingrich has called the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all secular employers—regardless of their owners’ religious affiliations and convictions—provide birth control insurance coverage for employees “the most outrageous assault on religious freedom in American history” and asserted that “every time you turn around the secular govern- ment is shrinking the rights of religious institutions in America.”
From the other side of the spectrum, the invocation of history is equally strident. For example, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has battled against the claim that the government has undermined church autonomy. From this group’s perspective, strict separation of church and state is “good for America” and “good for religion” because it prohibits government involvement with religious organizations. American history, they argue, demonstrates that Presidents and right-thinking Americans alike have always supported their interpretation of disestablishment.
This back-and-forth highlights the sharply differing views among activists, scholars, and politicians regarding the tradition of special deference (or lack thereof) given to religious organizations. The Hobby Lobby case, set for argument at the Supreme Court in early spring 2014, is just the latest incarnation of these battles. The question is as old as the nation, however. The rights of individuals versus organizational rights have been essential to the development of the law of religion in America. The place of religious organizations was keenly debated as a key component of disestablishment. Yet we know almost nothing about the experience of such organizations in our nation’s history.