Nebraska’s Legislature Loses A Champion Of Church-State Separation

  Rob Boston

All of the drama swirling around the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Senate elections in Georgia and the certification of the presidential election in Congress last week obscured some other interesting political news of note.

Consider this item from Nebraska: State senator Ernie Chambers has retired (again). You may not know Chambers’ name, but you should. He has had an amazing career – one marked by steadfast support for separation of church and state.

Chambers was first elected to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature in 1970, representing a district in North Omaha. He was re-elected for the next 34 years and became the state’s longest-serving senator (as well as the first Black person to win election to that body).

Advocates of church-state separation may remember Chambers as the plaintiff in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1983. Chambers, who has been open about his lack of religious beliefs, sued to end Nebraska’s practice of employing a taxpayer-funded chaplain to lead prayers before the Senate’s sessions. Although he lost the case, Chambers’ valiant battle highlighted the issue and made the question of the appropriateness of “civil religion” in a multi-faith, multi-philosophy society part of the public debate. Thanks to Chambers, we are still having that conversation many years later.

During his decades in office, Chambers was a stalwart voice for progressive causes. He bothered some people, as those who speak truths often do. His style was plain-spoken but powerful. In 2016, I heard him speak during a conference sponsored by the American Humanist Association, where Chambers was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was a powerful speech that included some thought-provoking material. Days later, I was still thinking about it.   

In 2008, term limits forced Chambers out of office for one term. But he ran again in 2012 and won easily. He has now been pushed out due to term limits again, and at age 83 he’s not sure if he’ll run again.

Ernie Chambers’ distinguished career has likely come to an end. The people of Nebraska are poorer for that.

Photo: Ernie Chambers addresses attendees at an anti-racism rally. Screenshot from KMTV-TV

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