An Unexpected Champion of Religion

Today, my local newspaper carried an article published a day or so ago in the New York Times.  It’s about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and how this man who considers himself “spiritual” rather than “religious”, has turned out to be a friend of many religious groups in the city for which he has executive responsibilities.  According to the NYT article, there are some people who are uncomfortable with de Blasio’s accommodations–such as the recent addition of two major Muslim observances to the calendar of days the city’s public schools will not be in session–as improper breaches of church-state separation (something on which the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights does not insist). On the other hand, “ultra-Orthodox Jews” are cited as seeing a political progressive (not generally an affiliation that is in league with conservative religious groups), believe that they have a “friend in City Hall.”

Mayor de Blasio is not in any way offending against the First Amendment (which is actually the third article of the Bill of Rights).  The first thing to notice about the First Amendment is that it only limits the right of Congress to either make an establishment of religion, or to prohibit the free exercise thereof.  The Federal government cannot do so, but a local or state can so choose (it is rare, however).  A local jurisdiction could also declare itself “religion free”, although in the case of New York City, that would be an exceptionally difficult thing to do. Historically, New York has been a patchwork of various communities, the deeply religious living  alongside vocal atheists, and the entire range between the two.

In 1954, my Jewish mother married my Catholic father in a ceremony conducted by the Director of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  It probably does not get more spiritually mixed up that that.

I applaud de Blasio’s sensitivity to the range of wisdom traditions encompassed in his city, and the nuanced way he respects both clauses of the First Amendment which directly reference religion.  The Mayor proposes no “establishment”–he does not say there is an official, dominant, or even “most important” religion in the city of New York. He does not outlaw practices of minority religions.  By proposing the addition of Muslim holy days to the school calendar, he not only recognizes a growing community, but he does not interfere with the free exercise of the religion (which is what happens when students whose religion requires their absence from school on non-official holidays).

A “spiritual but not religious” man is demonstrating exactly the best of public recognition of religion. Mayor de Blasio is not making the city Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.  Rather he is taking into account that religious belief is important to the lives of many New Yorkers, and finding ways to help them maintain their practices and observe their beliefs.  I would hope that it has also crossed his mind that, religious traditions, when they are allowed to flourish, more often contribute to, rather than undermine, the public good.

And whatever contributes to the public good–feeding programs, shelters for the homeless or victims of domestic violence, educational activities, cultural endeavors–is something to be encouraged.  Even if it does not issue from “my” tradition.  Even if I follow no tradition.

The First Amendment requires that the Federal Government refrain from establishing religion, or interfering with the beliefs and practices of those who consider religion a vitally important part of their lives.  de Blasio is helping to ensure that New York remains a city where religious faith and practice can flourish.


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