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Mayor Adams: Don’t Mess with Separation of Church and State

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

Mayor Eric Adams’s outlandish comments during an interfaith breakfast Tuesday criticizing the nation’s constitutionally mandated separation of church and state were playing with fire. “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body, church is the heart,” Adams said during Tuesday’s event. “You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.” The mayor also asserted, “When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.”Adams made these statements after his chief advisor Ingrid Lewis-Martin introduced him at the breakfast by saying that the Adams administration “doesn’t believe” in the separation of church and state.

Let’s be clear: Religion is a fundamental part of millions of New Yorkers’ lives and faith has played a crucial role in many of our nation’s achievements, including the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why freedom of religion is so important. But we are a nation and a city filled with people of many faiths and no faith. If government is going to represent all of us, it can’t favor any religious belief over another. That includes non-belief.

It isn’t like Adams should need to be reminded of what the First Amendment requires. He has sworn to uphold the Constitution more than once, first as a police officer, later as a state senator, and then last year upon becoming mayor. The very opening passage of the Bill of Rights makes clear that in matters of religion, the government must remain a neutral non-participant.

The dangers of the government favoring religion are not theoretical. When the government prefers one religion over another, it undermines the religious freedom of all of us. There are numerous examples from our city’s recent history alone when public officials or institutions have discriminated against New Yorkers because of their faith, or tried to use government power to advance religious causes. Here are two that stand out.

In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum over the “Sensation” exhibition, which featured a painting depicting the Virgin Mary in a way that offended the mayor’s religious sensibilities. Giuliani tried to pull city funding from the museum and terminate its city-issued lease, but he lost his case in court. We at the NYCLU argued, in a brief in support of the museum, that Giuliani flagrantly violated the well-established First Amendment prohibition against viewpoint discrimination.

Then, a little over a decade ago, the Associated Press broke the news that, since at least 2002, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division had engaged in the religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in New York City and beyond. The unit singled out Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, student associations, organizations, and businesses for pervasive, discriminatory surveillance that was exclusively focused on Muslims.

The NYCLU successfully sued the police department over these disturbing and illegal practices. The lawsuit resulted in the creation of a position for an independent civilian representative in the NYPD who now acts as a check against surveillance abuses.

In addition to our recent past, there is, of course, a much longer story to tell, stretching back to colonial New York, in which Catholics were denied religious and civil rights. And so on. Adams’s team is now claiming that those New Yorkers expressing concern over his comments are distorting his meaning—that he was making a point about what animates his leadership. But, without even considering what goes on in theocracies around the world, our city’s history alone shows why Adams is playing a dangerous game by casually dismissing the well-established partition between religion and public policy.

On matters of faith, Mayor Adams is entitled to his own beliefs. On the Constitution, he must uphold his oath.

This piece was originally published in New York Amsterdam News

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