Spearation of Church and State Home Page


Up till now we've been talking as if the debate over separation of church and state involves only two groups of people: separationists, who favor separation, and accomodationists, who oppose it. But obviously, the debate is more complicated than this. In particular, we note that not all separationists agree as to precisely what constitutes an establishment of religion, and not all accomodationists agree as what types of religious aid are permissible. Like most political debates, the debate over separation is a messy affair, and there is some disagreement within both positions as to where people actually stand.

Nevertheless, it is possible to describe with a good degree of accuracy the general positions people take within both of these camps. In most cases, these positions can be described with respect to (1) attitude toward the original Constitution, (2) attitude toward the First Amendment, and (3) attitude toward a variety of political issues around which the current debate revolves. Additionally we want to distinguish between accomodationists generally and non-preferentialists, a specific variety of accomodationist that deserves some separate treatment.


Attitude toward the original Constitution. Separationists hold that the original Constitution grants no power, either positive or negative, to the federal government over religion.

Attitude toward the First Amendment. Separationists generally believe that the First Amendment was intended to reaffirm that the Constitution granted no power to the federal government over religion. Additionally, they generally hold to what is known as the "broad" interpretation of the establishment clause, i.e., a belief that the First Amendment was intended to prohibit government from supporting or promoting religious beliefs or practices, even if that promotion favors no particular sect or religion. A separationists reading of the First Amendment would, for example, prohibit government from favoring religion over non-religion, using tax dollars to underwrite religious activities, or requiring people to be exposed to religious practices in the course of everyday governmental activity. A classic summary of the broad interpretation is given in Everson v. Board of Education.

Attitude toward specific political issues. Separationists would generally be against any of the following:


Attitude toward the original Constitution. Accomodationists hold either that the original Constitution conferred some grant of power to the federal government over religion, or that the Constitution should not be interpreted to prohibit such power.

Attitude toward the First Amendment. Accomodationists hold to any one of a number of "narrow" interpretations of the First Amendment clause, i.e., interpretations that allow the government considerable latitude in supporting or promoting religious beliefs and practices. Extreme accomodationists hold that the First Amendment was intended to bar only the establishment of a state church or religion, and that most types of aid that do not reach this level of favoritism are legal. Extreme accomodationists are generally very committed to majority rule at the local level and, hence, are favorable to laws that would allow local (as opposed to national or statewide) majorities to make decisions about religion in public forums. Extreme accomodationists, for example, have seriously proposed school prayer schemes that would give local school boards the power to write sectarian prayers that reflect the religious beliefs of the majority of parents in a school district (eg., prayer in the name of Jesus Christ). In practice, the overwhelming majority of accomodationists are not this extreme, and can be classified as non-preferentialists (see below).

Attitude toward specific political issues. Generally, accomodationists are in favor of the following:


Non-preferentialists are a subset of accomodationists. Their positions generally are the same as those of accomodationists, with an important exception: non-preferentialists believe that the Constitution allows the government to support or promote religious beliefs and practices only so long as that support favors no one religious sect or belief. Like accomodationists, non-preferentialists would hold that the First Amendment bars only the establishment of a state church, but they would interpret "establishment" somewhat more broadly to include any aid that expresses a specific religious viewpoint, even if that aid does not establish a specific denomination. Accordingly, non-preferentialists would reject accomodationist schemes to allow sectarian prayers in the public schools (eg., prayers in the name of Jesus Christ), but would allow non-sectarian prayers (eg., prayers that are general enough that they would not offend any theist). Similarly, non-preferentialists would allow government to favor religion generally over non-religion, provide at least some types of non-preferential aid to religion, and incorporate religious practices into government activities as long as those practices are non-sectarian.

A note on usage: Most of the arguments we make in this webpage apply to both non-preferentialists and accomodationists. Hence, When we use the word "accomodationist," in this webpage, we mean it to apply to both groups. If it's important to an argument, we will specify that it is intended specifically to non-accomodationists.
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