Mayor Eric Adams called on New Yorkers Thursday to transform New York City into "a place of God," saying in the wake of his predecessor's harsh COVID-19 restrictions imposed on religious gatherings, the city's main challenge is a lack of faith among the population.
"How do we take a city that is the center of the power of America and turn it into a city, when you enter it, everyone sees faith and sees God?" Adams asked during a faith-based summit on mental health held at Columbia University's Teachers College. "Our challenge is not economics. Our challenge is not finance. Our challenge is faith. People have lost their faith."
Adams' comments came two weeks after the mayor indicated at an interfaith breakfast that he does not believe in the separation of church and state.
"Don't tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body, church is the heart," said Adams, a Democrat. "You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can't separate my belief because I'm an elected official."
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Days later, Adams clarified his remarks, saying "government should not interfere with religion, and religion should not interfere with government."
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Then on Wednesday, Adams called on clerics to be part of a "major recruitment campaign" to get young people to become police officers.
"We should be part of the rallying call of having good, God-fearing young men and women play this awesome role of public safety in our city," Adams said during an appearance at a gun violence summit hosted by national faith leaders.
Adams' recent comments on faith stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was widely criticized for imposing strict restrictions on religious institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
De Blasio, a Democrat, threatened as early as March 2020 to shut down places of worship that violated the city's stay-at-home mandates. The next month, he stoked outrage by helping to break up a rabbi's funeral in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the name of public health.
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"My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed," tweeted de Blasio. "I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period."
De Blasio later vowed to keep up the pressure on "underground schools" after dispersing an Orthodox Jewish school operating in secret. That incident came weeks before city officials welded shut playgrounds in neighborhoods populated predominantly by Orthodox Jews.
In December 2020, the then-mayor threatened to shut down an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn "once and for all" if it continued to ignore his COVID restrictions.
De Blasio defended lockdown rules imposed by then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who restricted attendance at religious services to no more than 10 people in areas classified as "red" zones and to no more than 25 in "orange" zones.
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The restrictions triggered a lawsuit that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court, which blocked officials from enforcing the order.
"It is time – past time – to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion for the case.
De Blasio was especially criticized for enforcing restrictions on religious gatherings while allowing — and even participating in — large-scale protests in the wake of George Floyd's death.
After the COVID lockdowns, more Americans of all ages, political views and education levels reported never attending religious services than before the pandemic, according to recent polling conducted by the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago.
The data found that liberals and young Americans saw the greatest declines in worship attendance.
"American church attendance collapsed during the pandemic," Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University, tweeted this week in response to the findings. "When churches sent the message that churches are not essential, people listened."