Some See NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio as Unexpected Champion of Religion

Mr. de Blasio was blessed during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in December. (Yana Paskova for The New York Times)
Mr. de Blasio was blessed during Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December. (Yana Paskova for The New York Times)

Growing up, Mayor Bill de Blasio was the only child on his block who did not attend Mass on Sundays. “Everyone else was at church, and I wasn’t,” he recalled in an interview last week. “Some of the kids envied me.”

His mother, a lapsed Catholic, had little interest in organized religion, and Mr. de Blasio inherited her skepticism. To this day, he belongs to no church, and prefers to call himself “spiritual” rather than religious.

Yet as the leader of a famously secular city, Mr. de Blasio has been emerging as something unexpected: a champion of religion whose administration has advanced the cause of faith groups in the unlikeliest of public squares.

In Mr. de Blasio’s New York, public prekindergarten classes will soon be able to include a midday break for observant students to pray. Schools will be closed citywide for two Muslim holy days. He is poised to relax health regulations governing a controversial circumcision ritual that is favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews. And the mayor says he is intent on finding a way for church groups to continue holding services in public schools on weekends, even as the United States Supreme Court could decide as early as next week to take up a case about whether the city has the right to prohibit the practice.

In finding novel ways to commingle church and state, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, has carved himself a niche as a more inclusive kind of liberal, one who is willing to embrace religious groups rather than treat them as adversaries.

His moves have put him at odds with some of his usual allies, like civil libertarians, who are increasingly uneasy with what they consider to be an aggressive redefining of the proper separation between the secular and the devout.

“This is the area that has been the source of greatest disappointment for us,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Many of Mr. de Blasio’s religious initiatives began as campaign promises, made during his courtship of evangelicals, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and other religious groups that now make up a substantial portion of the city. They are groups that often felt frustrated by the administration of Michael R. Bloomberg, a political independent who was avowedly secular and insisted on a strict church-state divide.

“The progressive political community, of which de Blasio considers himself a part, tends to have a more secularist view of the world, and you would not describe us as a progressive community,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive director of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox Jews. “We will holler about same-sex marriage and all the rest.”

“But when you get down to the level of actual governance,” Rabbi Zwiebel added, “down to efforts to try to respect the community’s sensitivities and religious traditions, my own view is that we have a real friend in City Hall.”

In the interview last week, Mr. de Blasio described religious outreach as inseparable from his work to create a more inclusive and equitable New York.

“If you are going to understand the community and the city, you have to understand how deeply faithful people are, and how central it is to people in their lives,” he said.

Mr. de Blasio had an Italian great-uncle, Alberto, who was a priest, but he died when the mayor was young. His mother drifted from the church in her 20s, and religion “was not a particular focal point” for his father, the mayor recalled. Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, grew up in an Episcopal home, attending Sunday school and church camps, but stopped practicing in college.

“I don’t think she felt the pertinence in her life,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Today, the family does not attend church, but the de Blasio children, Chiara and Dante, were camp counselors at Beth Elohim, a Jewish Reform congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Sharon Otterman and Michael M. Grynbaum

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