Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died early this morning, and with his death, the last of a generation has passed from the U.S. Senate. At 89, he had been the oldest member of the upper chamber and the last to have served in the Second World War.

Lautenberg is perhaps best known as a staunch advocate for public safety, but he also was a stalwart supporter of something else: the wall of separation between church and state. Throughout his career, he stood ready to defend First Amendment principles, supporting many of AU’s activities on key issues such as public school prayer, private school vouchers and the “faith-based” initiative.

Back in 1984, for example, Lautenberg opposed President Ronald Reagan’s constitutional amendment that would have permitted official prayer in public schools. The New York Times said senators like him received countless phone calls and letters asking that they support the amendment, but he would not be swayed.

Lautenberg told The Times: “I recognize the importance of prayer in individual, family and community life. For many, it is an integral part of each day and enriches life. But prayer is an intensely personal experience. It is not something that can or should be prescribed by government. Many religious leaders have expressed to me their view that religious practices must stay private, without intervention by public offices or even peers.”

He also explained that truly voluntary student prayer is already broadly protected.

“The Constitution,” he said, “now protects the child who wants to pray before, during or after school. Personal prayer is exactly what the First Amendment guarantees. It is for these reasons that I cannot support any of the present proposals for the Senate to amend the Constitution.”

The Reagan amendment fell 11 votes short of the two-thirds needed to pass, with 18 Republicans (including “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater) joining 26 Democrats to defeat the measure.

That was just one of several instances in which Lautenberg took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

In 2003, he spoke out against invidious aspects of the “faith-based” initiative, slamming an executive order issued by President George W. Bush that allowed publicly funded religious charities to engage in discriminatory hiring. He said this action “should trouble Americans who care deeply about civil justice and equality.”

Argued Lautenberg, “[A] policy that says ‘Catholics need not apply’ should never, ever be funded by the Federal Government. If a religious group wants to restrict employment with their own money, that is their business, but they should not be able to discriminate in staffing up government programs paid for with public dollars, tax dollars.”

Lautenberg could be counted on to oppose school vouchers, too, including in 2010 when he voted against reauthorization of the Washington, D.C., voucher program.  

He also stood for separation on some lower-profile matters.

In 1998, he added a safeguard to a Senate resolution that lauded the Ten Commandments and urged its display. The non-binding resolution, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), was sure to pass in the GOP-dominated upper chamber of Congress so Lautenberg worked to minimize the damage.

The Sessions proposal declared that the Commandments “set forth a code of moral conduct, observance of which is acknowledged to promote respect for our system of laws and the good of society....” It also urged display of the Decalogue “in the Supreme Court, the Capitol building, the White House, and other government offices and courthouses across the long as it is consistent with the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” [emphasis added]

The italicized phrase was not part of the original measure and was only added at Lautenberg’s insistence. He threatened to open up a full debate on the Sessions proposal if the language were not added, so Sessions reluctantly agreed to the change.

The next year, Lautenberg was one of just 13 senators to vote against a measure proposed in the wake of the Columbine shootings that was designed to promote official worship and religious symbols in public schools where slayings occur.

Lautenberg also showed he wasn’t afraid to stand up to leaders of the Religious Right. In 2005, TV preacher Pat Robertson said federal judges are a greater threat to America than the terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001. That didn’t sit well with Lautenberg, who fired back in a letter to Robertson demanding that he apologize.

It was shocking to hear your cavalier dismissal of the atrocious 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by describing them as ‘a few bearded terrorists who fly planes into buildings,’” Lautenberg wrote.

(Robertson refused to apologize, but that’s standard operating procedure for Brother Pat.)

That same year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) invited “Christian nation” advocate and bogus historian David Barton to lead senators on a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Lautenberg was none too pleased, and he let his opinion be known on the Senate floor.

“[Barton] intends to prove that the separation of church and state is a myth, and that America’s Founders intended for the United States to be a Christian nation,” he warned.

He called on Frist to drop the tour, and in response Frist decided on a scaled-back version in which only he and his wife roamed the capitol with the faux scholar.

It is clear that Lautenberg wasn’t the type to simply lean with the prevailing political winds, and that’s something that those who worked for him admired. Peter Kurdock, a former staffer at Americans United who worked for Lautenberg for almost two years, said: “He truly cared about policy over politics, which is very rare in Washington.”

Lautenberg will be missed, and we can only hope that his replacement will advocate for church-state separation with the same vigor.