Blunt remarks by New York City Mayor Eric Adams at a Feb. 28 interfaith breakfast made waves amid critics’ accusations of intolerance. However, some Catholic leaders praised the mayor’s remarks about the importance of faith to society as being on point.
Adams, a former police officer and the city’s mayor for just over a year, leaned into language about the separation of church and state and restoring prayer in public schools in a way seldom spoken by a major politician in decades.
The mayor also was careful to include other faiths in his address before participants gathered at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Barton Forum in Midtown Manhattan.
As he began to address the question of separation of church and state, Adams said, “Our children (are) stopping at the local bodega and they get gummy bears that’s laced with cannabis — and they’re sitting in the classroom and we are asking, ‘Why can’t our children read and write? Why don’t they behave?'”
Adams said children need to have instilled in them “some level of faith and belief.”
“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” he said. “State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official.”
He said, “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. That’s who I am.”
Adams continued, “(A)nd I’m going to be that when I leave government. I am still a child of God and will always be a child of God, and I won’t apologize about being a child of God. It is not going to happen.”
With respect to prayer in public schools, Adams drew an analogy between his training as a boxer and what is happening when people go out into society but leave their faith behind at their house of worship.
“When I was growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, I was learning how to box. And every time I would get in the ring, I would lose the fight,” he said. “And my trainer will say, ‘Eric, the problem is you leave your best fight in the gym and you’re supposed to take it into the ring with you.'”
“And that is what has happened to many of us,” the mayor continued. “The synagogue is the gym. The church is the gym. The Sikh temple is the gym. The mosque is the gym. You are there for training. You are not there to leave your best worship in the gym.”
Adams said, “If we are bringing our best fight in the ring, we would not have homeless in this city. We would not have a crisis of domestic violence.” He added children have paid a price, “because when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.”
State-sponsored prayer in public schools, typically in classrooms at the beginning of the school day, was prohibited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962. The decision did not prohibit individuals praying, however, as long as the prayers were not disruptive to others.
Some Catholic leaders offered praise for Adams’ words.
“Bravo, Mayor Adams!” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York in a March 1 interview on WCBS Radio. “Glad you said it!”
Cardinal Dolan, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty committee, was quick to add his own context as well. “I’m sure he believes in the First Amendment, but separation of church and state is not in the Constitution.”
Among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The cardinal added that he didn’t “want to separate spirituality from politics. That’s maybe part of our problem.”
The Knights of Peter Claver, a fraternal organization rooted in the Black Catholic tradition open to all practicing Catholics, also had kudos for Adams’ speech.
“The mayor’s analogy of using the church as our gym training ground and for us to show our worship and work in the ring of the real world was poignant and on point,” Percy Marchand, associate director of the Knights, based in New Orleans, told OSV News in a statement.
“For too long, many have selfishly gone to church on Sunday only to leave out and turn a blind eye to the world’s mounting problems — homelessness, racism, domestic violence, mental and physical health, problems with the criminal justice system, food shortages, and a lack of adequate care for seniors and the disabled among many other plagues that continue to impact our brothers and sisters,” Marchand said. “We must stop leaving our ‘worship’ in the church and instead let the church give us the spiritual strength and training needed to instead be ‘living worshippers’ in the community and world.”
Leading the critics against Adams for his remarks was Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“We are a nation and a city of many faiths and no faith,” she said in a statement. “In order for our government to truly represent us, it must not favor any belief over another, including non-belief.”
Adams’ spokesperson, Fabien Levy, asked for the mayor’s remarks to be understood in a fuller context.
“The mayor personally believes all of our faiths would ensure we are humane to one another,” he said. “While everyone in the room immediately understood what the mayor meant, it’s unfortunate that some have attempted to hijack the narrative in an effort to misrepresent the mayor’s comments.”