NEW YORK -- An opening prayer at Monday's Cabinet meeting by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who said the separation of church and state "doesn't mean that they cannot work together," has drawn sharp criticism from secular groups who say his words infringe on the principle of separation itself.
Prayers during Trump's Cabinet meetings are not new, nor is his administration the first to do so: former President George W. Bush also opened Cabinet meetings with prayer, and former President Barack Obama's administration supported a New York town's bid to begin local meetings with Christian prayers during a legal battle that culminated with a 2014 Supreme Court decision in its favor. The Obama-era brief filed in that case cited the congressional tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer.
After Carson used his prayer to thank God for Trump, as he has in the past, the former surgeon said that the president's advisers "help us all to recognize as a nation that separation of church and state means that the church does not dominate the state, and it means the state does not dominate the church."
"It doesn't mean that they cannot work together to promote godly principles," Carson added. He lauded Trump for "great courage in (the) face of constant criticism."
Advocates disagreed. Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement that Carson's commentary "is hypocritical and does a disservice to this constitutional principle."
"Church-state separation means that all Americans have the right to believe or not, as long as they don't harm others," Laser added. "This administration's policies and rhetoric, by contrast, privilege a narrow set of religious views above all others."
Fueling the advocates' worries is the fact that Carson, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, has a history of pushing back at the separation of church and state. He did so during his GOP presidential primary campaign in 2016, when he touted the nation's "Judeo-Christian foundation" to one Iowa voter.
"The Secretary's heartfelt prayer speaks for itself. He simply used prayer to emphasize the value of every American, the need for civility, and the importance of morality. It is saddening some people would try to skew his genuine words into anything other than the contrary," said HUD spokeswoman Caroline Vanvick.
Carson's wording in Monday's prayer also raised alarm bells coming 10 days after both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Bill Barr delivered public speeches touting the influence of their Christian faiths. In his remarks in Nashville, Pompeo discussed consulting the Bible he keeps on his desk as often as possible, while Barr's remarks at the University of Notre Dame attributed to the framers of the Constitution a "belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government."
Both Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Rachel Deitch of the American Humanist Association said Carson's view sidelines Americans who identify with no religion, including atheists and agnostics. The share of Americans in that category stood at 26% in a poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, rising from 17% in 2009.
"Religion and believers have no monopoly on" the positive values Carson described, Gaylor said, but his comment "makes it sound like they do."
Laser, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that taken together, prayers, the statement about separation of church and state and the administration's actions are cause for concern.
She added: "Prayers at government meetings send a message that this administration favors people of faith, and Christians in particular."