Secular Bill de Blasio Sows Confusion as New York Allows Prayer in Pre-K

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at Baruch College on February 3, 2015 in New York City.

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

For someone unaffiliated with any church, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has become an unlikely advocate for the religious, from supporting the right of Orthodox Jews to use oral suction during circumcision to closing schools on Muslim holidays.

The moves by de Blasio, who calls himself a “spiritual person,” have ignited criticism from civil libertarians who usually support his progressive agenda. They say he’s blurred the separation of church and state by advocating use of public facilities for Sunday services and, in the latest example, allowing Jewish yeshivas and Catholic schools to conduct midday prayer breaks in taxpayer-funded pre-kindergartens.

“New Yorkers would be well advised to think about how they would feel if their child was in a pre-K program when their kid does not belong to the same faith as the other kids, and all the other kids are herded in to go pray,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

De Blasio, the first Democrat to run City Hall in 20 years, says he’s trying to respect New York’s diversity and promote inclusion. He’s also likely to reap political advantages by pursuing policies that send pre-K tuition funds to religious institutions and allowing practices that other mayors restricted.

‘Rational Calculation’

“When partisan political organizations are weaker and weaker, religious groups turn out voters,” said Kenneth Sherrill, political-science professor emeritus at Hunter College in Manhattan. “The mayor’s policies may be at odds with his base, but it’s a rational calculation because if he does well by religious groups, they are not likely to turn their backs to him in the next election.”

The issue hasn’t arisen on a national scale since the 1980s, when lawmakers debated subsidies for day care, said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based lobbying group. Advocates for child care considered it so important they were willing to disregard constitutional limits to achieve that goal, he said.

New York’s Orthodox Jewish population grew about 32 percent in the 12 years through 2011 and composed about 40 percent of the city’s 1.1 million Jews, according to the most recent demographic study by UJA-Federation of New York.

Hasidic, or ultra-Orthodox, rabbis traditionally influence the overwhelming number of votes of their communities. In 2013, when de Blasio courted Hasidim to win his party’s nomination, as much as 7 percent of primary voters came from enclaves in those areas of Brooklyn, said David Pollock, who specializes in politics and government at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“Mayor de Blasio is a populist, and he is working to accommodate all kinds of groups,” Pollock said this week. “He understands that universal pre-K can’t be truly universal if there are groups that can’t access it in a way consistent with their religious beliefs.”

Circumcision Ritual

During the campaign, Orthodox rabbis and their constituents closely scrutinized how the candidates answered questions about limits the city had placed on circumcision rite of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel who performs the procedure on an 8-day-old boy sucks blood from the cut penis to clean the wound.

Since 2000, at least 12 New York infants have become infected with the herpes virus following the ritual, and two died. De Blasio, 53, promised he would end requirements that parents sign informed-consent documents asserting that they had been made aware of the risks.

In February, de Blasio said he would ask the Board of Health to scrap the requirement, substituting it with an agreement negotiated with a coalition of rabbis. The new program requires testing of any mohel after a herpes infection and, if found to be positive, banning him for life.

Muslim Holidays

The mayor won praise from Muslims this month when he announced that the largest U.S. school system would observe the holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. An unintended consequence of that decision was that it drew scores of protesting Asian residents to City Hall a week later. They demanded that he honor his campaign pledge to recognize the Lunar New Year.

De Blasio has said he has no objection to a church in the Bronx renting space in a public school for services even as city lawyers have a case in the U.S. Supreme Court defending former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2010 decision to deny use of the school. The city’s rules, put in place in 2010, prohibit partisan political events, private ceremonies and commercial uses as well as worship services. The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

“This is something that for years and years went on in our schools without contradicting the separation between church and state, based on a group having to apply, having to wait its turn on line, having to pay rent,” de Blasio told reporters Feb. 23.

More troubling to civil libertarians has been the mayor’s quickness to permit prayer in public facilities or in city-funded school programs.

Pre-K Prayer

The issue arose this week as the administration began accepting applications to expand its universal preschool program to 70,000 children next year, after beginning with 53,000 this year. To achieve that, the city had to rely on religious organizations and community groups for space. About 5,000 seats are in religious facilities, of which about 3,300 are Catholic and about 1,300 are Jewish, according to Wiley Norvell, a mayoral spokesman.

De Blasio has said that in the next school year, he would have no objection to pre-kindergartens affiliated with religious institutions to conduct 20-minute prayer breaks, so long as they didn’t count that time toward the required six-hour, 20-minute school day. Schools would have to make up the lost time with extra classes on Sunday or federal holidays, he said.

At stake for the groups allowing the city to use their space are millions of dollars in public funds to reimburse them at a rate of about $10,000 per student.

Yeshivas, Archdiocese

Some Orthodox Jews express disatisfaction with the plan because they want to be able to practice their faith during the day without having to make up for lost time.

“This is not an option for us, because they must have religious instruction; it’s who they are as Jews,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union, a national advocacy group.

From Yeshiva Ohr Shraga Veretzky in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to the Catholic Archdiocese offices near Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, educators say the new rules have created more confusion than clarity.

Yitty Tillim, 38, who directs the pre-K program at Ohr Shraga, says she doesn’t know what would happen if the school included non-Jews who would have to watch as their 4-year-old classmates went off to pray or say a blessing before and after each meal.

Hebrew, Secular

That issue couldn’t arise at present because although the program is open to anyone, all 20 boys in the class come from Orthodox Jewish homes. They receive religious instruction in Hebrew before the start of secular class at 9:40 a.m., she said.

At Catholic schools, the prospect of being permitted to pray in the middle of the school day opens new possibilities for religious training of 4-year-olds, said Fran Davies, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New York’s education division. Educators hadn’t yet given any thought to how they would handle students of different faiths, she said.

“Now that we will have them,” Davies said, “we see them as an opportunity. We were used to the idea of boundaries between secular and religious, and we didn’t have a problem with those in the past.”

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