Mayor Adams’ remarks on faith and government lead to tiff with civil liberties activists

Mayor Eric Adams speaks at Interfaith Breakfast.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams appeared to tell an interfaith breakfast crowd Tuesday that he doesn’t believe in the constitutional separation of church and state in America.

“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” the mayor told the audience gathered at the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building of the main New York Public Library branch in Midtown. “State is the body, church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.”

The mayor’s remarks set off a kerfuffle with civil liberties activists who argued he is obligated by law to keep government and faith separate. A spokesperson for Adams, however, later walked back his breakfast remarks and claimed the comments had been misinterpreted. 

Adams, who is Christian, has framed his religious beliefs as a central part of his personal story and political career, often connecting his faith rhetorically to civic engagement. 

The mayor’s remarks seemed to be spurred by similar comments from his chief advisor, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, earlier in the program.

“We know in government, many times, it is said that one has to separate church from state,” Lewis-Martin said. “But, we have an administration that doesn’t believe in that. We have a mayor … who is definitely one of the chosen.”

The separation of church and state is guaranteed under the “Establishment Clause” of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The clause prevents any religion from influencing public institutions, including public schools.

Following the mayor’s and Lewis-Martin’s statements, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), said that after many years in public life as a police officer, state Senator, Brooklyn borough president and now mayor, Adams should understand the legal separation of church and state.

“We are a nation and a city of many faiths and no faith,” Lieberman said. “In order for our government to truly represent us, it must not favor any belief over another, including non-belief.

“It is odd that Mayor Adams would need a refresher on the First Amendment,” she added. “After all, he has sworn to uphold the Constitution more than once, first as a police officer, later as a state representative, and then last year upon becoming mayor. The very opening passage of the Bill of Rights makes clear that church and state must be separate. On matters of faith, the Mayor is entitled to his own beliefs. On the Constitution, he must uphold his oath.”

The mayor’s spokesperson, Fabien Levy, in a statement to amNewYork Metro, reafirmed the centrality of Adams’ faith to his policy agenda, while accusing some people of distorting his comments in a bid to “hijack the narrative.”

“As the mayor said before an interfaith group comprised of hundreds of representatives from a multitude of religions, you can’t remove the heart from the body,” Levy said.

“The policies we make as an administration are rooted in the mayor’s belief in the creator,” he added. “The mayor personally believes all of our faiths would ensure we are humane to one another. 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.”

This story was updated to include a full statement to amNewYork Metro from Adams’ spokesperson at 8:05 p.m. on Tuesday Feb. 28, 2023.