They say only Nixon could go to China. Maybe now they’ll say that only de Blasio could get religion back into New York’s public schools. According to the New York Times, Mayor de Blasio has been irking his liberal allies by his repeated efforts to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. With greater success than many conservative activists, this liberal mayor has been able to push religion in the Big Apple.
No one doubts de Blasio’s left-of-center politics. The Washington Post called his leadership “a laboratory of sorts for modern progressivism.” Yet this progressive politician has done more to integrate religion and public schools than many of the conservative politicians we’ve studied in these pages.
For example, in his quest to expand pre-kindergarten classes to all of New York’s children, de Blasio has included religious schools. As the New York Times relates, the Mayor has welcomed the participation even of very conservative religious schools, as long as they agree to include children of all religious backgrounds. This plan, of course, would funnel tax dollars directly to religious organizations.
Similarly, Mayor de Blasio has added two Islamic holidays to the New York City public school calendar, precisely because they are religious holidays. Muslim leaders celebrated, but civil libertarians point out that this act violates a long-standing principle of church-state separation.
The Mayor has long supported the use of school buildings by religious groups for services, though conservatives accuse him of reversing himself. One case might soon end up before the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS bans this traditional practice, will de Blasio protest? Will the Mayor take the side of religious groups against a constitutional clarification of the required wall between religious groups and public education?
New York Times writers Michael M. Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman call New York a “famously secular city.” But we need to be careful when we say such things. As Grynbaum and Otterman note, de Blasio’s success has come partly with support from conservative religious New Yorkers, “a substantial portion of the city.” As we’ve explored in these pages, New York, like many big cities, is not secular, but rather riotously religious.
Indeed, that ferociously diverse religiosity might be the key to Mayor de Blasio’s success. Conservative activists have tried time and again to push evangelical Protestantism in the public schools of places such as Kansas and Kountze, Texas. In New York City, on the other hand, the Mayor can make a good case that he is not pushing any one sort of religion. In his efforts to improve public schooling for all, he has the liberty to open the door to religious groups in ways a more conservative politician might not.