New York City Mayor Eric Adams, whom I generally admire, has advocated reintroducing prayer in public schools. The suggestion, though doubtless well-meant, is nevertheless unconstitutional. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." That means any religion, all religions. It does not matter which.
The First Amendment poses no barrier to his personal preference. This is what Mayor Adams said: "Don't tell me about no separation of church and state."
Well Mayor Adams, I am going to tell you about separation of church and state. It was a great idea espoused by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the brilliant writers of our Constitution. It was based on the writing of Rhode Island Minister Roger Williams, who saw it as protecting the church from the corrupting influence of the State. Please read not only the First Amendment but also the dozens of court cases that have applied it to prohibit religious prayer in public schools. You have the right to believe that the "Church is the heart." So keep going to church, but do not compel young students to pray to your God or to any God.
Adams also suggested a false choice between prayer in the schools and guns in schools: "When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools." There is no evidence to support this questionable theory of causation. Neither prayers nor guns belong in schools.
Adams may not be able to "separate [his] belief" from his actions as mayor. But the Constitution requires that mayors, as public officials, do just that. He claims that "the policies we make as an administration are rooted in the Mayor's belief in his creator." In other words those citizens of New York – and there are many of them – who do not necessarily believe in "his" creator, are not included in his policies.
We are divided enough today along racial, ethnic, gender, ideological and partisan lines. Now Mayor Adams wants to divide us further along religious lines. History has proved that there is no such thing as "interdenominational" prayer, because all religions are different, and those individuals with no religion are not included. Mayor Adams did not inform us whose prayer he would include: should it be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist? What about the child who was brought up as an atheist or agnostic? Or the religious student who does not believe in public prayer? When it comes to religion, there can be no consensus. Nor should there be.
When "non-denominational prayer" was introduced in Boston several decades ago, fights erupted in the classroom. When a young Jewish woman, who refused to recite a Christian prayer, was shamed and disciplined, I had to come to her defense. When my mother was a public school student in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, her Catholic teacher made her memorize parts of the Latin Mass, which she was always able to recite. The teacher honestly thought she was instilling Americanism into these children of immigrants. But Americanism requires compliance with the United States Constitution.
All around the nation, public schools are becoming platforms for propaganda. Students are being told what to think, rather than being taught how to think, critically and analytically. Personal and political views about race, gender, ideology – and now religion – are replacing (or at least supplementing) math, science and objective history. Many on the right want religion, but not sex or race ideology, to be taught in public schools. Many on the left want sex and race ideology, but not religion. Both are wrong. Neither belongs in taxpayer-supported public schools.
Mayor Adams' call for unconstitutional prayer is merely the tip of a very deep and dangerous iceberg that afflicts both the left and the right. Tragically, it also afflicts the center, as reflected by the demand being made by Mayor Adams, who himself is a centrist.
Too many Americans, like Mayor Adams, are prepared to ignore or defy the Constitution when it serves their political interests. He says: "Don't tell me about no separation of church and state." Others say: "Don't tell me about the 5th amendment, or the 4th amendment, or the First Amendment" – or the impeachment clause of the Constitution. "We want to get our way, and the Constitution be damned."
So instead of starting each school day with a prayer, why don't we start each school day with the recitation of the First Amendment? Then the teacher can explain why prayer is a private matter – for the home, the church or the mind. It is not the job of the teacher to inculcate his or her religious views— or those of Mayor Adams.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School, and the author most recently of The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth The Consequences. He is the Jack Roth Charitable Foundation Fellow at Gatestone Institute, and is also the host of "The Dershow" podcast.