New York City Mayor retracted on separation of state and religion but insist on religion influence both in U.S. policy, including his. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams

“Government should not interfere with religion, religion should not interfere with state,” stated New York Mayors Eric Adams as a clarification of his late February’s address to an interfaith audience, which provoked a whole outcry across the country.

Interacting with CNN’s Danna Bash on March 5, Mr. Adams denied any intention of compelling his fellow citizens to follow a specific religion, adding that an interference state-religion “cannot happen and that should not happen.”

Critics arose from everywhere following Eric Adams’ speech during an interfaith breakfast the city hosted on February 28th at the New York Public Library’s reception hall on Fifth Avenue.

Talking about how faith and belief can help deal with challenges his administration has been facing, including gang violences and economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Adams declared, “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.”

The mayor went on, “I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them.”

One of the first reactions to the mayor’s statement came from New York Civil Liberty Union’s executive director. “We are a nation and a city of many faiths and no faith,” Donna Liebermann commented the same day. “In order for our government to truly represent us, it must not favor any belief over another, including non-belief.”

Critics, including Liebermann, expected that Mayor Adams disapproved the words of his chief advisor Ingrid Lewis-Martin held prior he climbed the stage saying that “we have an administration that doesn’t believe in” separation of church and state.

“It is odd that Mayor Adams would need a refresher on the First Amendment.” NYCLU’s executive director wrote. “After all,” she added, “he [Mayor Adams] has sworn to uphold the Constitution more than once, first as a police officer, later as a representative, and then last year upon becoming a mayor.”

From social media comments to traditional media reports of the issue, people have pointed out the violation of the Constitution of the United States both in substance and in form. Professor of History at CUNY, professor Robert Parmer said that the mayor should not have called for such a meeting though the Interfaith Breakfast has been held for years by the New York City administration. Adams’ predecessor Bill de Blasio hosted his last one in 2021.

To Professor Parmer, by hosting an interreligious gathering Eric Adams would influence his fellow citizens’ choice of religion or side with some religions over others or disregard those who do not believe in any religion or in God.

Similar rejection of Mayor Eric Adams’ statement on separation of state and religion are to read in the comment section of the mayor’s office’s YouTube channel. “This mayor needs a history lesson of what happens when church and state are not separated!” commented Nessa Jones.

Obviously, there have been those who share the same view as Mayor Adams. Deep Green, targeting the user Jones, hammered, “You need a lesson in the US Constitution, which says nothing about “separation of religious people and state offices,” asserting that Jones is “sorely mistaken.”

Green’s reaction prompted Jones to fight back, and her argument is “I wasn’t referring to individual religious people and individual state office working positions,” adding that “I was referring to the statements he made about ‘separation of church and state. The institutions of Church and State.’”  

Nessa Jones’ “understanding is [that] it’s in the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” as she went on, “the principle is paraphrased from Thomas Jefferson’s ‘separation between church and state.’”

Linda Allewalt is another YouToube user that blamed “[] politicians who not only do NOT understand what the meaning of separation of government and religion is, but put our democracy in danger from that lack of understanding.” Allewalt’s view is that “we are NOT a Christian nation, or a Muslim nation or a Wiccan nation [but] a secular nation.” She believes that “Adams needs to apologize to the growing section of America that is non-religious.”

“[] this is horrifying,” wrote @csamurkas, “when leaders and their spokespeople start saying they’re chosen by [G]od run. Faith is not a requirement for being a good person or doing good things, nor does having faith prevent one from being a horrible person.” Amurkas found it “great that Mayor Adams has his religion, but she suggests the mayor to “keep it out of a democratically elected and secular government and away from me and those of us who don’t want it.”

In fact, Professor Parmer’s view of the question is not different from the general rebukes as he leans on the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and others texts, including Virginia Statute for religious freedom, to blame the mayor’s initiative. Yet, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause Jones mentioned in her argument are both part of the First Amendment.

The establishment clause debars Congress from instituting any act “respecting an establishment of religion.” Bruce Miroff and co-authors (2015) wrote about it, “at the time of the Bill of Rights[1], these words were aimed mainly at preventing the federal government from bestowing on any religious denomination the special privileges enjoyed by the official Anglican Church in England (374).”

Overtime, the Supreme Court has established “a complete separation of church and state” despite that the United States remains a religious society with 71% of Christians, 4% of non-Christians and 23% of nonaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center.

In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the court has sided with parents when ruling “that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.” The same thing happened a year later in Abington School District v. Schempp case about “Bible reading in Pennsylvania public schools” and in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) in relation with “a moment and meditation or prior in Alabama public schools (Miroff, p. 374).”

In addition to the fact that a majority of Americans are religious, Mayor Adams underlined the involvement of religion in the United States’ political affairs. Adams recalled that the last words of his inaugural speech were “Help me God”, the same for almost all elected people, including the president. He also called attention to the fact that the presidents swear in “with hand on a religious book” and that the country’s motto is “In God we trust” as coined on the local currency.

Indeed, it sounds like an obligation for a newly elected in whatever function in the US to attend a mass or a religious ceremony before or shortly after inauguration. President Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris did it on January 20th at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. before taking the oath.

In 2016, president Donald Trump attend more than one religious’ ceremony, including a private one with his family prior to his inauguration at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, and another at the Washington National Cathedral the day after. In addition, Trump swore in with hand on two bibles: one president Lincoln used and the other his mother had given him. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing at the inauguration was another important religious fact.

The free exercise clause bars Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise.” It secures “the right to believe in whatever religion one chooses (Miroff, p. 375)”, but religious conduct often falls at odds with the constitution prescriptions. Just as with the establishment clause, the Supreme Court has brought some harmony as in West Virginia State Board of Education v Banette case (1943).

The topic of separation of state and religion has not been new in a mayor’s interfaith address. In 2016, Bill de Blasio, Eric Adams predecessor, affirmed that his “interpretation is very different” from that of people visioning “’separation of church and state’ as a reason to keep some distance from faith communities”

“Separation of church and state,” he said, “indicates a government that will perform its roles fairly and equally towards all communities, towards people who have a particular faith background and people who don’t choose any faith, equally.”

To the former New York City Mayor, separation of state and religion “means that each part of our society plays different roles, but it does not suggest for a moment that we shouldn’t fully and deeply stand shoulder to shoulder to do this work, because we can’t do it well enough without you.”

From funding congregational schools to attending religious ceremonies as part of the inauguration to swearing in with the hand on the Bible there might be a bond between religion and state. By performing such acts officials make the common ground obvious without offending the law. Before his retraction, Eric Adams might only unmask the deal by telling its name.

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