IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

New York City mayor flunks test on separation of church and state

When it comes to the separation of church and state, New York Mayor Eric Adams thinks he knows what he's talking about. He’s very wrong.


At an interfaith breakfast in New York City on Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams’ chief adviser, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, delivered a striking message to attendees. “We know in government, many times, it is said that one has to separate church from state, but we have an administration that doesn’t believe in that,” the Christian chaplain said.

Soon after, as Politico reported, the mayor proved her right.

“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” Adams said to applause from hundreds of religious leaders gathered at an annual event in Manhattan. ... “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body, church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies,” Adams said.

In case there are any lingering questions about the mayor’s political affiliations, Adams is a Democrat, though his rhetoric yesterday was indistinguishable from the messages pushed by far-right televangelists and their GOP allies who still see school prayer as a culture war issue.

In fact, it was just last year when House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a very conservative Louisiana Republican, told reporters, “We had AR-15s in the 1960s. We didn’t have those mass school shootings. Now, I know it’s something that some people don’t want to talk about, but we actually had prayer in school during those days.”

Adams’ rhetoric yesterday was similar, but by most measures, he was even more overtly hostile toward a bedrock principle of the American government.

Part of what made the mayor’s rhetoric so bizarre was the factual error at the heart of his argument: As Adams sees it, “we” took prayers out of schools, which in turn opened the door to gun violence in schools. This isn’t even close to being true.

Even if we put aside the fact that there were examples of mass school shootings that occurred before the Supreme Court rulings in question, the more relevant detail is that voluntary prayer was never removed from public schools. As we’ve discussed, what court rulings did was require public schools to remain neutral on matters of faith, putting religious guidance in the hands of parents, families and faith leaders, instead of government employees.

What Adams, many Republicans and the religious right movement prefer is the old model: A system in which students pray on their own isn’t as good, they say, as one in which public school officials intervene in children’s religious lives.

How would that work in New York City — by some measures, one of the most religiously diverse municipalities on the planet? I have no idea, but I’d love to hear Adams explain his vision in more detail.

But just as disheartening was the mayor saying, “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state.” To hear Adams tell it, constitutional religious liberty protections are an annoyance that he prefers to disregard.

I have a hunch there are some lawyers in New York’s City Hall who’d be able to explain to the mayor why he has no idea what he’s talking about.