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Accommodationism is a judicial interpretation which espouses that "the government may support or endorse religious establishments as long as it treats all religions equally and does not show preferential treatment."[1] Accommodationists espouse the view that "religious individuals, and/or religious entities may be accommodated by government in regard to such things as free exercise rights, access to government programs and facilities, and religious expression."[2]

Accommodationists hold that religion "has beneficial consequences for human behavior; that is, religion provides a transcendent basis for morality and provides limits for the scope of political conflict",[3] they teach that religion "combines an objective, nonarbitrary basis for public morality with respect for the dignity and autonomy of each individual" and thus "balances the need for public order with a respect for individual liberty".[3]

Since the time that the first president of the United States, George Washington, wrote a notable letter to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) affirming their right to conscientious objection with regard to war, "the accommodationist position has been dominant in U.S. law and public culture".[4][5] It has also advocated by many social conservatives of many political orientations, such as Christian democratic political parties.[6]

Accommodationism stands in tension with the judicial interpretation of separation of church and state, and the constitutionality of various government practices with respect to religion is a topic of active debate. Both principles arise from interpretations of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.


In his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington acknowledged a day of "fasting, humiliation and prayer" proclaimed by the Continental Congress to be held on Thursday, May 6, 1779. To enable his soldiers to observe the day, Washington ordered a one-day cessation of recreation and "unnecessary labor".[7]

Historians Mark Noll and Luke E. Harlow write that accommodationism was the view held by the Founding Fathers of the United States:[8]

The accommodationist perspective emphasizes rather that the First Amendment was clearly not intended to be antireligious--indeed, as already suggested, it was drafted precisely to protect the various religious practices of the states, including preferential establishments in some of them. Accommodationists therefore reinterpret the First Amendment to make of religious liberty a positive right, the exercise of which is to be encouraged by the government. By the same token, they believe that the First Amendment excludes only the direct establishment of, or preferential treatment for, a particular religion. Indeed, government should facilitate the practice of religion by both individuals and collectivities as essential to the common good; this position is very different from that of the separationists and leads to markedly different contemporary policies and practices. In addition, as the point of departure for historical interpretation, it focuses attention upon the residual religious quality of this founding period, which was hardly secularist; the same Congress that proposed the First Amendment was opened with prayer and named a chaplain. Indeed, most of the early presidents declared occasional days of thanksgiving--and even of humiliation. Provision was made for support of religion in western lands. And, in time, the resources of religious groups were utilized in making government policy for relations with Native Americans. In sum, accommodationists consider that the operative ideal of the early republic was a nonpreferentialist posture of support for religion on the part of the government. In turn, that seems to point toward a modern ideal of accommodation of government to religion in ways that secure the greater common civil good as well as serve the spiritual ends of numbers of citizens.[8]

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that most Christian denominations produce similar political effects in society:[3]

The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable, they all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.... Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.... Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is ... that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and experiments of men." (Tocqueville 1945, 314- 15; emphasis added).[3]

In light of this broad consensus, many political scientists have noted that religion legitimizes political authority.[3] Accommodationism also opines that "there is a common set of religiously based morals" with values such as "chastity, honesty, charity, and frugality [which are] ultimately regarded as having a religious basis, but are common to virtually all religious traditions".[9]

Richard John Neuhaus likewise stated that religion provides a "sacred canopy" under which political activity can occur, stating:[3]

Politics derives its directions from the ethos, from the cultural sensibilities that are the context of political action; the cultural context is shaped by our moral judgments and intuitions about how the world and how it ought to be. Again, for the great majority of Americans such moral judgments and intuitions are inseparable from religious belief. Perhaps this is true not just of the majority but of all of us, whether or not we call our ultimate values religious. In any event, whether it is called the Judeo-Christian etehic, or Christianity,... it is the dynamic of religion that holds the promise of binding together [religare] a nation in a way that may more nearly approximate civitas (1984, 60).[3]

In light of what accommodationists see as the ethical dimension of religion, especially that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the United States "accomodationists tend to take a very narrow view of the establishment clause, arguing that this clause only requires nonpreferentialism".[3]

In contrast to Tocqueville's view, different Christian denominations have taken opposing views on moral issues which have been the basis for law, such as slavery, contraception, abortion, Christianity and homosexuality, capital punishment, and war; some of these disputes break down into the Christian right vs. Christian left. Christian libertarianism is directly opposed to the use of state power to support religious beliefs.


A quarter dollar with the United States' official motto "In God We Trust" on the obverse side

Accommodationism advocates providing aid to parochial schools, school vouchers that provide tax credit for private/parochial schools, as well as nonsectarian school prayer, as long as these policies apply equally to all religious institutions and individuals.[3] In contrast to those advocating laïcité, accommodationists view the expression of one's religious faith in the public sphere as a human right, such as the wearing of a cross necklace or headcovering, for example.[10][4]

In the United States, religious-based federal holidays and observances, including the National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving, as well as Christmas, exist based on accommodationist principles.[11] Accommodationism also is seen in national anthem and the official motto of the United States, In God We Trust, as well as in the judicial oath So help me God.[11] Notably, William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, sounded the "clarion call for accommodation" when he stated in his ruling:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma; when the state [p314] encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. (Reports 343 U.S. 310 [1952])[12]

In the United States, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled with an accommodationist outcome in Everson v. Board of Education, Zorach v. Clauson, McGowan v. Maryland, Epperson v. Arkansas, Board of Education v. Allen, Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, Tilton v. Richardson, Roemer v. Board of Public Works of Maryland, CPERL v. Regan, Widmar v. Vincent, Larson v. Valente, United States v. Lee, Mueller v. Allen, Marsh v. Chambers, Lynch v. Donnelly, Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, Bowen v. Roy, Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, Goldman v. Weinberger, Corp. of Presiding Bishop v. Amos, Bowen v. Kendrick, Employment Division v. Smith, Hernandez v. Commissioner, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization of California, Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, Capitol Square Review & Advisory Board v. Pinette, Agostini v. Felton, City of Boerne v. Flores, Mitchell v. Helms, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Van Orden v. Perry, and Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, among others.[12]


In the United States, organizations that promote accommodationism include The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Foundation for Moral Law, Lord's Day Alliance, Alliance Defending Freedom, Christian Coalition, Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the First Liberty Institute.[13]

Socially conservative political parties such as the Republican Party, Constitution Party, and American Solidarity Party espouse accommodationism.[3]

Organizations that have argued against accommodationist policies in the United States include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Ayn Rand Institute, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, People for the American Way, and the Secular Coalition for America.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Developing Core Literacy Proficiencies. John Wiley & Sons. 15 September 2016. p. 118. ISBN 9781119192541.
  2. ^ Ravitch, Frank S. (2007). Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses. NYU Press. p. 87. ISBN 9780814775851.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Wilcox, Clyde; Jelen, Ted G. (16 September 2016). Public Attitudes Toward Church and State. Taylor & Francis. pp. 20, 100. ISBN 9781315485478.
  4. ^ a b Nussbaum, Martha (11 July 2010). "Veiled Threats?". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2017. On the whole, the accommodationist position has been dominant in U. S. law and public culture ─ ever since George Washington wrote a famous letter to the Quakers explaining that he would not require them to serve in the military because the "conscientious scruples of all men" deserve the greatest "delicacy and tenderness."
  5. ^ Nussbaum, Martha C. (24 April 2012). The New Religious Intolerance. Harvard University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9780674065918.
  6. ^ Studies in Political Economy, Issues 19-21. Carleton University Graphic Services. 1986. p. 97. Shortly after Independence, George Washington offered an influential statement of the accomodationist position in a letter he wrote to the Quakers, apropos of their refusal to perform military service (1789)...
  7. ^ The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 14. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1779. p. 369.
  8. ^ a b Noll, Mark A.; Harlow, Luke E. (13 September 2007). Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present. Oxford University Press. p. 82. ISBN 9780198043164.
  9. ^ Schultz, Jeffrey D.; West, John G.; MacLean, Iain S. (1999). Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 7. ISBN 9781573561303.
  10. ^ Katie McDonagh & Cameron Hatheway (5 July 2013). "Cross necklace controversy sweeps SSU campus". Sonoma State Star. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  11. ^ a b Drakeman, Donald L. (1 January 1991). Church-state Constitutional Issues: Making Sense of the Establishment Clause. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313276637.
  12. ^ a b Wald, Kenneth D.; Calhoun-Brown, Allison (16 August 2010). Religion and Politics in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 80–85. ISBN 9781442201538.
  13. ^ Banks, Christopher P.; Blakeman, John C. (13 July 2012). The U.S. Supreme Court and New Federalism: From the Rehnquist to the Roberts Court. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 176. ISBN 9781442218581.

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