New York City Mayor Eric Adams sparked controversy Tuesday when he chose the occasion of an interfaith breakfast to criticize the separation of church and state and promote prayer in schools.

Adams, a Democrat, said he can’t separate his faith from his work and that church is at the heart of the state.

“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies,” he said, according to The New York Times.

Adams added that efforts to remove religious expression from schools put students in danger.

“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” he said, according to Politico.

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His comments shocked some of the religious leaders in attendance at the interfaith breakfast, who likely expected the mayor to offer a milder speech about how religious institutions strengthen New York City.

Rabbi Abby Stein described his actual remarks as “unhinged and dangerous.”

“I respect people talking about using their faith to help people,” she told The New York Times. “This wasn’t that.”

In the hours after the breakfast, several national religious freedom groups spoke out about Adams’ speech and criticized the mayor for appearing to dismiss the legal protections that prevent Americans from being forced to support a religion that’s not their own.

“Mayor Adams’ comments dismissing our country’s foundational principle of separation of church and state are shocking and dangerous. Our democracy, equality and rights all rely on America’s commitment to separate church and state. That separation is not anti-religion, as Mayor Adams seems to imply. Rather, it is what protects religious freedom for everyone,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement.

Meanwhile, members of Adams’ staff pushed back against the backlash, arguing that reporters at the interfaith breakfast had misinterpreted the mayor’s remarks.

“Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mr. Adams, suggested that too much fuss was being made of the mayor’s remarks. The mayor was merely saying, Mr. Levy argued, that faith guides his actions,” The New York Times reported.

The controversy comes as policymakers nationwide battle over the true meaning of church-state separation as they debate issues like private school vouchers and prayer in public schools.

Liberals and conservatives increasingly disagree over when the First Amendment’s prohibition on government interference with religion should trump its religious exercise protections.

One reason why Adams’ remarks were surprising is that Democrats these days typically advocate for more separation between religious and political actors, not less. But, as The New York Times noted, Adams is a unique character and has spoken often about his sense that God is behind his impressive political career.

“He seems to view his own rise from police officer to mayor of the financial and media capital of the United States as divinely ordained,” The New York Times reported.