Ernie Chambers: Hero of the First Amendment

As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation.

This acceptance speech was given on Nov. 12, 2005, at the 27th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in Orlando, Fla. Senator Ernie Chambers, Nebraska Legislature, was honored as a Hero of the First Amendment” for taking Marsh v. Chambers to the Supreme Court, challenging paid Legislative prayers. To read the introduction and biographical material about the “Hero of the First Amendment,” please see the sidebar.


“Hero of the First Amendment” honoree
Sen. Ernie Chambers
Photo by Brent Nicastro

By Senator Ernie Chambers

There is a person who is going to follow me, and give a talk that you probably will enjoy more than what I’m going to say. First of all, she’ll [Robin Morgan] be easier on the eyes. I’ve been around here 68 years and when people from another state ask me to send a picture, I tell them get a picture of Godzilla and put my name under it. That happened one time, and when I showed up, people looked at me. I said, What’s the matter? They asked, Have you been in a prisoner of war camp or something? No, I said. Why? They said, Your picture looks so much better than you do. So I don’t do that anymore.

Annie Laurie’s introduction was the kind that I would not accept under any other circumstances, but I respect what this group is doing so much that I am willing to change a number of my practices. I accept only certain awards. When they try to give them to me in Nebraska, I explain that it is not the award that I am interested in, but what I’m doing, and that the best way to honor me is to practice some of the things that I talk about and I believe in.

But when there is a group such as this, fighting so hard on an issue that is so important, and when you fight it, it is going to lead to you being called names and maybe even being threatened, then it is very easy for me to come the distance that I did to be with you tonight.

So that I won’t get sidetracked with digressions, which I generally do, I will talk briefly about the chaplain matter. I resented them having a prayer from the first day I entered the Nebraska Legislature. It was so ingrained that it did not appear that anything could be done to make a difference. What I would do, from time to time, is mock, taunt, and ridicule my colleagues for injecting religion and Jesus into the Legislature.

I said, “Don’t you all get mad at me, because this is a political forum and anything you bring here is fair game. If Jesus means no more to you than these other political issues, then we are going to have at it. You keep him out of here if you don’t want me to talk about him like I do. And I know that you don’t respect him, because nobody would invite the name of anybody they respect into the poisoned environment of this Legislature.”

An opportunity came for me to take a crack at them in 1979. There was, for the first time since I’d been in the Legislature, a competition. Another preacher dared to say that he wanted to say the prayer. Well, the one who had been giving it all the time, I found out later, was the pastor at a church of a guy named Jerome Warner, whose family was politically connected in Nebraska. Warner is the one whose record I broke by serving longer that anybody else. But he had not made it clear that this was his preacher.

We have what’s called the Executive Board. That is something like a board of directors for the Legislature. Between the time we adjourned the session in ’79 and came back into session in 1980, the then-Executive Board listened to this other preacher make his spiel, and decided to hire him. He was as good a prayer merchant as the other one, and maybe they were getting tired of the old one. So, when the Legislature was about to convene, this preacher who was to be replaced, . . .

Brothers and sisters, let me say something here about this group. I have not been before a group of white people as numerous as this one without feeling a negative vibration. I feel none of that this evening, so if I’m a bit lax in keeping my guard up, if you don’t see any fire come out of my nostrils, if my forehead sprouts no horns, then you understand that I conduct myself in a way that’s suitable for the circumstances I find myself in . . .

But the point I want to make is about these two feuding individuals. Warner would receive handouts from me, like all the other senators. One day I wrote a handout about the mouthings of the preacher. I said that some assistant to the guy who gave the prayers today said his pastor gave them “freely out of the goodness of his heart.” I wrote, “So the fact that the regular preacher charges for his prayers makes it clear he doesn’t do it out of the goodness of his heart, or freely.”

Sen. Warner, whom everybody says is worthy of such respect, balled that note up, and called one of the young pages to bring it to my desk. She was full of apologies. I said, “Look, I know we got fools and jackasses around here. You have a job and it’s not your responsibility to go to war with them. Do what they tell you to do. I don’t take umbrage at what you are doing. I will not kill the messenger because a fool sends the message. And I consider the source.”

So I opened it up. And it said words to this effect: “Senator, save the state the money. Don’t send me any more of your handouts on this subject.” Petty and small. If that’s what his feeling was, he should have come and said it to me and not sent a young girl. But that’s the way these Christians behave. They hide. They’re dishonest. They’re hypocritical. (I don’t know if people are crooks and become “Repelicans,” or if they become Repelicans and turn into crooks, from Nixon, when people started paying attention, right on down the line through all the rest of them, to this nincompoop that they have in office now. But he has handled himself in such a way as to turn off even other Repelicans and he’s losing in the polls. So now, what they have thought and felt and knew is starting to come out. They knew better than to walk lockstep with him, and these people called the religious right, or the evangelicals, are starting to show a little backbone. Especially when this guy named Kaine won down in Virginia, and he’s against the death penalty. And acknowledged it. And used that as a basis for his deeply-held religious conviction that the death penalty is wrong. And he won the governorship. So the Repelicans started shaking in their boots.)

Let me hurry right along. One of the best people that we have on our side–I’m going to get to the chaplain–is Pat Robertson. Remember, he said they should nuke Foggy Bottom, and he may have thrown in the Pentagon. Then he said God should kill all these Supreme Court judges, who don’t rule the way Pat Robertson wants them to rule. And he is praying for that. Then he said that Hugo Chavez needs to be assassinated. And then recently, because some intelligent people rejected this idiotic notion of so-called intelligent design, and bounced off the school board in a town called Dover, Pat Robertson immediately responded–because he has a pipeline directly to the god that he worships. He said, “God told me to tell you, he said if a disaster comes to your town,”–and Robertson always has that smile, that beatific baby-faced smile–“don’t ask God to do anything about it because he’s not going to do it. Pray to Charles Darwin.” There was such an outcry of indignation, even from some of those on the so-called religious right, that Pat Robertson might begin to realize that he is becoming one of those people not in favor, where the people are concerned. But he was allowed to get away with it for so long.

That other one, down in Lynchburg, Va., is Jerry Falwell. All of them hustle religion. If I did believe in any kind of religion labeled Christian, I could not feel good about those men calling themselves representatives of that religion.

Now, I’ve been condemned by the Catholic League, the national organization. The Christian Scientists are offended, practically all of the other religions, on-brand and off-brand, in Nebraska, because I say what I really think and what I really believe. The black community is called by some people conservative, because they don’t believe, a lot of them (that doesn’t go for all), in same-sex marriage. Before any other state tried it and was talking about it, in Nebraska I tried to get it done. Knowing I couldn’t. And because my motion was before the body and I wanted to try to amend a bill, the other side tried to invoke cloture. They can’t count. It takes 33 votes. They tried it just before noon. Around noon, senators become what I call Captain Lunch Hunters and they want to go eat with the lobbyists. So some of the votes were gone and they did not get enough votes to invoke cloture. They were trying to get a bill that said marriage exists only between a man and a woman. I had offered a bill that would have struck any language that suggested that. I repeatedly have brought a bill to prohibit discrimination against gay men and lesbian women based on sexual orientation.

By not being religious, not belonging to a political party, not belonging to any organization, not being beholden to anybody, I can say and do what I believe is right for me to say and do. So that is what I push for.

As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation.

I tell them that there are rights, so-called, of a civil nature, only because they are created by the legislature or the government. Whenever the government creates or guarantees any right, every person–not just a citizen, every person, unless it’s one of those which relates to voting, where citizenship is a requirement–is entitled to those rights.

I don’t have to be judgmental. I don’t have a hell to send anybody to, or a heaven to put anybody in, or a church I want them to go to, or a church I don’t want them to go to. I can look at the issue and resolve all confusions and conflicts in my mind on the basis of that issue. When it’s a civil right, everybody is entitled to it. I will fight to make sure everybody gets that right–if it’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan–because we are talking now about the government’s relationship to the citizens. There are a lot of times I have to swallow–actually it’s not hard for me, but that sounds more impressive–my personal predilections to make sure that people who I know would stab me in the back, literally, who would say that the government should burn me at the stake were it not for the Eighth Amendment, are treated fairly by the government. If they are being treated unfairly by the government, then I will do all I can to make sure they are treated fairly. I happen to believe in the notion that if any unpopular person or groups’ rights are violated, then everybody’s rights are endangered.

What a government that chooses to do wrong will do is sharpen its tools of oppression on unpopular groups, because the great masses don’t care. They don’t like those people, and they’re willing to see them suffer. Aside from that, they’re glad it’s them getting it instead of us. But that canny government has bigger fish to fry. Then when they start coming after you all, the majority group, suddenly you are exercised because the wolf is on your front doorstep howling, and you say, “Save me, somebody!” It’s too late then, because while you watched other unpopular people being messed over, the way was being prepared for you. But now it’s too late for you to get that help that you wish was there. People should not be apathetic.

As good as this group is on the issue that you all are fighting, you still are white people. You were reared white. Your churches, at the time you may have gone to church, during the time when you were unenlightened, were white, and had a white point of view. The government is white. The Supreme Court, everything, is white. And everything is presented from a white person’s point of view. So you take that stuff in with your mother’s milk.

On an issue such as this, you can identify with me, because I am out there on the cutting edge with reference to something you believe in. But when it comes to those things that I believe in, and where the people that I care about need help, I wouldn’t have a turn-out like this for that. As pleased as I am to receive the plaque, and as gratified as I am to see as many of you fighting to keep the church out of the state’s business–and that’s right–I’m unable to forget that when I see this sea of white faces, they still are white. I don’t have the luxury that you all have. I cannot pick an issue and give my time to that, and let others go begging. Wherever I see wrong, I have to try to do something to the extent that I can to right it.

To get on to the chaplain: when these two guys were battling for the chaplainship, it split the Legislature. I ridiculed them: “You’ve got a war going on to determine who is going to represent what you all call the ‘Prince of Peace.’ Why do you even want somebody–a part of legislative proceedings–who, every time he stands up there, is going to alienate people who are part of the body?”

To make a long story short, they went for Warner’s preacher, and put this guy, named Palmer, back as chaplain. He wore a wig. I’m not against people wearing wigs. Anything that makes you feel good, do it. But I said, “When a man comes before you, and what is on his head is false, what’s in his head is false also.”

When they made the motion to rename him chaplain, I substituted my name, offered it as an amendment. Naturally, I withdrew it. But I said, “Everything about me is real. Everything you see about me is real. If I shake my head, nothin’s gonna fall out.”

They did not agree to do away with the chaplain’s position. I said prayers are being sold. I grew up with the bible, I grew up in a religious straightjacket, Church of God in Christ, I know all of that stuff. (They think because I quote it, that I believe in it. I say I talk about ogres, and dragons, and witches, and werewolves, and tiki gods, but I don’t believe in them. I use the language that people understand.)

So, your Jesus said, “Freely you’ve received, freely give.” Why is he charging for his prayers? That is a betrayal of what your Jesus was about. The only one I know of who betrayed him was named Judas. He was given 30 pieces of silver to do it. Since we have a modern equivalent, I move that we reduce this preacher’s salary from $319 a month to 30 silver dollars. I said you know what the symbolism is now, ’cause I told you. And naturally, they voted that down, too.

That December I filed a lawsuit, with the assistance of the ACLU, to get rid of the prayers, and the pay. The judge ruled that these prayers had been given, historically, and they meant nothing religious. That decison should have made these religious people say, “Do we want our prayers up there if they don’t mean anything?” Even the pastor stood up and said, “They’re secular.” Prayer, by definition, is a religious exercise, but he, to keep his position, said, “They’re secular.”

So, I made the comment, “They made it clear that their prayers don’t mean any more to them than they mean to me. They are as worthless to them as they are worthless to me. ” But the judge did rule: “You cannot pay him.” So they immediately stopped paying.

The thing was appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court, under Warren Burger, said that they can keep the preacher, he can say his prayers, and they can pay him. So I wrote a letter. I addressed it to Chief Justice Warren Burger and the French fries. I mentioned all the different religions I could think of, and even made up some, and said, “Which of these would not have the right to be represented in the prayers in the morning?” To be fair to everybody, you ought to get a chorus composed of all the people, one from every one of these religions, and let them all babble at the same time their particular religious view. If you all don’t want to be bothered with them actually in here, then let them make a record and you play that every morning. If that’s not good enough for you, because religious people are so innovative, find a person who at one and the same time believes in every god and every religion, and believes in none of them, and let that person come up here . . . and drive you crazy.

I said, “That’s what I think of what you’re doing. You ought to have Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, because at least people know who they are, and you won’t be offended when somebody ridicules them the way I ridicule your Jesus and your god.”

In the meantime, between the case being decided at the lower level and the U.S. Supreme Court saying that they can pay him, the Legislature decided that instead of fighting me every time the matter came up on the floor, they would get rid of paying this guy and he’d become the chaplain coordinator. Well, he didn’t mind that. That meant that he would have people come in and say this prayer. He wound up leaving that position ’cause he reportedly had to go get treatment for alcoholism. Seriously.

So an editorial was written about how upset people were when I first brought that lawsuit, but how things were better in the Legislature now because there’s at least a diversity among those who give the prayers that had never existed before. They listed all these different religions that had been represented by the people giving the prayers. That didn’t make me feel better. It just meant there were more aiders, abettors and co-conspirators. But for those who wanted that stuff, it showed ’em that having one preacher from one church for 15 years was inappropriate.

There was one preacher who said something I was really pleased with, but I turned it against him. Very few come in that chamber now, when a prayer goes forward. The minister would be up there just a’prayin’ and a’prayin’ and the camera pans out and you see two or three people standing there, trying to be courteous. (They might trade off and say, “You got the short straw. You have to be there today.”) But this preacher said, “I’m not going back anymore, because I don’t want to pray to an empty chamber. I can pray from my study if the chamber is gonna be empty.”

And I said, “Well, when he comes here to pray he supposed to be praying to his god, not to us. So, whether there’s one or all 49 senators present, that should be suitable for him.”

One statement, then I’m going to take some questions. Sometimes, when people are new and don’t understand the makeup of the Nebraska Legislature, I tell them, “You all my white folks.” I own this Legislature. If a bill is to be passed, I’ll let you pass it. And then I tell ’em. I don’t do it by strangling people, breaking people’s jaws. I mastered their rules and I beat ’em at their own game. A loaded brain beats a loaded gun. Except in a gun fight. But we all understand that.

There are 49 people in the Legislature: 48 white people, and me. And it’s not a fair fight. The person new to this says to me, “You need some more people on your side.” And I say, “No, they need some more people on theirs.”

One other thing, and then I’ll let it go, ’cause I was working up to this. I called my topic: “First Amendment, Last Bastion.” That really, for a group like this, doesn’t need any explanation, so I won’t take much time on it. But the Constitution has not been friendly toward black people. In its original form, it recognized us as three-fifths of a person. There was a fugitive slave provision. If one of us managed to escape to a non-slave state, we could be, and were required under the Constitution, turned back over to some white man who came and claimed that he owned us like a cow or pig or a chicken. That’s in the Constitution. It protected the international slave trade until 1808.

Then it put a provision in that told how to amend the Constitution. And remember, when the Constitution was adopted, one of the inducements was the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. They told what it would take to amend the Constitution. Anything could have been amended. Anything. They could have put in a king instead of a president. They could have set up a parliamentary form of government. They could have repealed the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights.

But there was one thing only that could not be repealed or amended in any way until 1808. The one thing that was more important than the First Amendment, than the Eighth Amendment, than the Fifth Amendment, was the international slave trade. That provision in the Constitution said that those provisions, and it referenced them, would shield the slave trade from any amendment by Congress, until 1808, and could not, in any way, be amended prior to 1808. That is the only provision in the Constitution that the Constitution explicitly said could not be touched.

How do you think that makes us feel? But it’s like the Old Testament and the New Testament (Jesus and others said the Old Testament was a compact with death). And here comes the New Testament, and everything’s better. Well, all that’s “old testament.” After the Civil War–in which 200,000 black men fought, 186,000 in the Army, 14,000 in the Navy, 38,000 died, 20 got the Congressional Medal of Honor–the Thirteenth Amendment, the first book of the “new testament,” abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, the second book, bestowed citizenship, such as it is, on us, and put in the due process clause and equal protection of the laws. The Fifteenth Amendment bestowed on black men the right to vote. Women didn’t get to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920. People don’t realize that the Fifteenth Amendment did not allow black women to vote. It said you could not be denied the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude. But a condition that would prevent women from voting was their gender. Now since women make up more than 51% of the population, you need to get out there and vote.

What I did say was what I wanted to say, but it wasn’t all of it. I will accept any questions that you want to ask.

(Standing ovation)

Q: It’s criminal that after three years you will not be able to agitate in a public forum as you can now. What will you do with that brilliant mind of yours?

A: I won’t quibble about whether the last part is true or not. But a lawyer and I are working on a theory, that we are going to present to the Nebraska Supreme Court, to try to overturn the term limits amended to the State Constitution. If that fails, I will find plenty of things to do, but right now I’m keeping that close to the vest, because I want to see how this case comes out. But I will not shrivel up and blow away.

Q: Somebody has to save Kansas. You’re close-by.

A: This would be like asking the Wizard of Oz to save Kansas. When Dorothy awoke from that dream and woke up back in Kansas, nothing had changed. Kansas has a terrible set of circumstances where these children in the public schools are going to have questions on their assessment test related to this so-called intelligent design. So can you imagine how those kids are going to be damaged?

As somebody pointed out, because teachers and others are focusing so much on grades on these standardized tests, they’re going to feel they’ve got to teach them this kind of stuff. When a kid shows on a degree that he or she graduated from any school in Kansas, the door is going to close. I think it is so tragic. People everywhere ought to do whatever they can to try to encourage the people of Kansas to change what has happened. Maybe the quickest way is for people, when the election comes up, to get rid of those jugheads on their school board. I don’t know whether their legislature will do anything, but I’m sure that they could determine a definition of science. But I hate to have the government define things, anyway. If something like that was anticipated in Nebraska, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for them to do it, as long as I am there.

Q: I’m curious how you keep getting reelected? It seems like it would be a difficult prospect.

A: Maybe no other politician could, because I don’t profess religion. I ridicule religion. I condemn the preachers for not doing what they should do. I don’t pander to anybody.

But let’s say we have ten people in my district lined up here. This one will say, “I hate him on these nine things. But I’m with him on that tenth one and nobody does it better.” So when you go through all ten of ’em, each one has a reason for overlooking whatever they don’t like, and going for what I do that they like. Comparing me to the preachers, they would rather see action and results, than hear all of this fluff talk. To give an easy way to explain it, I say, “If you go to a fish fry and you have one of these fish that’s been cooked on your plate, you eat the meat and you throw the bones away.” Whatever it is I say that’s of value to you, take that, and let the rest of it go. But I say the fact that people continue to reelect me is a tribute to their intelligence!

Q: What is going on with the death penalty?

A: A [question from a] fellow Omahan! I didn’t know we had so many subversives in Omaha. That’s what you’re considered if you have an attitude of the kind that this group represents.

I have a bill pending before the Legislature to abolish the death penalty. There’s been one before the Legislature just about every year that I’ve been there. What I’ve been fighting hardest against right now, is to prevent them from changing the method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. Nebraska is the only state that has only electrocution. If we can keep people alive long enough to get it before the Supreme Court, the Court may strike it down as being cruel and unusual, because it has been rejected by every other state.

You have to learn the rules of the game you are playing. And the rules are often not those that are written on the paper. This is another thing white people can do. They write the rules in pencil, and when I beat ’em at that, they just erase that and write something else. Because practically every session they’ve amended the rules to try to stop me. And they admit it. I divide them. They know I will make them pay. I don’t threaten with empty threats. I don’t shoot blanks. And I don’t back off. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. My energy is boundless. When the Legislature is in session, I stand up all day. They sit down.

Q: How about 2008?

A: I’m realistic. It’s a nice thought, but it would never happen. But here’s what I say. At my advanced stage in life, I would not want to be governor. I would not want to be president. I would not want to a U.S. Senator, a member of the House. And if term limits come into being as far as cutting me off, I will not be involved in elective politics anymore–as a candidate. Maybe I will work and politically organize, but I’m not interested in public office. I will have served 38 years. That’s too long to do anything, except live, and be married–if you manage it without killing each other.

Honoring Senator Ernie Chambers


Annie Laurie shaking Ernie’s hand
Photo by Brent Nicastro

This introduction was delivered on Nov. 12, 2005, at the annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in giving a “Hero of the First Amendment” award to Sen. Ernie Chambers.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Our office had often wondered about the brave Nebraska legislator who dared to file a lawsuit challenging paid prayers before the Nebraska Legislature. In the past 30 years, it is virtually unheard of for an elected official to brave voter wrath and stand up for the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, much less become a plaintiff in a controversial lawsuit. Sen. Ernie Chambers won parts of his challenge of paid legislative prayers at the federal and appellate level. When Marsh v. Chambers was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, the Burger Court decided, very wrongly, that because the prayers had been going on for so long, they amounted to a “tradition.” Well, slavery was also a long-standing “tradition” in our country, so that reasoning was pretty appalling.

It is a testament to the persuasiveness of Sen. Ernie Chambers that after the decision was handed down, Nebraska decided to drop paid prayers anyway. Instead, the Legislature hired a coordinator to deal with unpaid clergy. That in itself is a major victory for taxpayers’ right not to be forced to subsidize worship.

Michael Newdow, who has challenged “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is the Foundation member (and three-time honoree) who actually nominated Ernie Chambers for an award. I am grateful to Mike for letting me know that Ernie Chambers is still serving in the Nebraska statehouse, and was so easy to find!

Sen. Chambers was first elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 1970. This spring, he became the longest-serving senator in the history of the State of Nebraska. In fact, it is well-known that a term-limit amendment that passed in 2000 was aimed primarily at unseating Sen. Chambers. When you think about that, it’s quite a compliment to Sen. Chambers. Sadly for Nebraska and the nation, he cannot seek reelection in 2008. But that does give him three more years to agitate!

Sen. Chambers is known in Nebraska as a “defender of the downtrodden,” defending the rights of women athletes, gays and lesbians, farmers, criminals. He has diligently attempted to overthrow Nebraska’s death penalty, which law he did manage to modify.

An Omaha redevelopment project now bears his name, after his role in seeing to it that historic buildings will be renovated into 70 affordable housing units for 240 people. The courtyard this year was named “Chamber Court” in his honor.

Omaha Housing Authority Frank Brown told the newspapers:

“He needs to be honored. There needs to be a legacy. Kids have to know who Senator Chambers was and is.”

We feel the same way.

Sen. Chambers has continued to be an activist for the separation of church and state, as you know a highly unpopular cause. This year, for instance, he filed a complaint against a judge in Sarpy Co., Neb., whose unlawful and inappropriate religious comments and bible-reading ended up overturning the sentences of two convicted child molesters. Sen. Chambers filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Qualifications seeking to find Thompson guilty of willful misconduct and be unseated.

I was recently contacted by Rita Swan, of Iowa, who directs Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty. Rita, who has addressed our group in the past, writes:

“I notice that you are giving Ernie Chambers an award. I hope you will mention in your introduction of him at the convention that he has kept religious exemptions out of Nebraska’s child protection laws.

“Nebraska is the only state in the country that has never had a religious exemption to child neglect in either the juvenile or criminal codes and that distinction is due to Ernie’s forceful opposition and vigilance.

“Nebraska is one of four states without a religious exemption to metabolic screening of newborns and that again is because of Ernie’s leadership. (The Nebraska Supreme Court recently upheld the metabolic screening law against religious challengers.)”

Rita continues:

“We live just across the Missouri River from Nebraska, so we have watched Ernie work over the years. His accomplishments in a conservative state and conservative legislature are astounding–many, many one-man filibusters.

“Even during the 1975-83 period when the feds were coercing states through the power of funding to pass religious exemptions to child neglect laws, Ernie managed to keep them out.

“He is being term-limited out. It’s a shame,” Rita concluded.

I was contacted by a Nebraska reporter from the Omaha World-Herald who obviously greatly admired Ernie, and who wrote a piece about the fact that the Foundation is honoring Ernie. She regaled me with details on his accomplishments as a progressive voice in Nebraska. He graduated from Creighton Law School, never took the bar. He was under surveillance by Herbert Hoover. Under Ernie’s leadership, Nebraska became one of the first states to divest from South Africa. She also told me something I hadn’t asked him about, that, on top of all of his other marvelous attributes, he is (no surprise) a non-superstitionist.

Ernie Chambers breaks the starched suit and tie rules, wearing T-shirts to the Legislature, on Donahue, to the United Nations and to meet President Carter. The only black member in an overwhelmingly white, ultraconservative state, he regularly receives vicious threats and racial slurs. He is quoted in court decisions. He is a stalwart on abortion rights. He is considered the conscience of the Nebraska statehouse.

We have admired Ernie Chambers from afar for many, many years, and thank him for traveling so far just so that we could meet him and shake his hand.

Ernie, you are our hero, and we have a plaque for you naming you our 2005 “Hero of the First Amendment.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is Foundation co-president, editor of Freethought Today, the anthology Women Without Superstition (1997), and author of Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So (revision, 2004).

Ernie’s Newest Challenge

The discord caused by a pastor’s prayer before the Nebraska Legislature in late January focused attention on Sen. Ernie Chambers’ longstanding fight to stop legislative prayers.

Thanks to Chambers’ persistence, legislative guidelines require pastors to offer nondenominational prayers and refrain from discussing legislative issues and other political topics before the Legislature.

Yet Rev. Tom Swartley, from First Christian Church in Elm Creek, Neb., delivered a prayer lamenting legal abortion and evolution.

“I ask your forgiveness on our people, a people who have killed 47 million of my fellow Americans since the year I was born. We have aborted 47 million babies made in your image. God, forgive us.”

Swartley intoned: “Forgive us also, O God, for the teaching of the religion of evolution to our young citizens, a religion that tells us that we are only here by chance; that we are here for no reason and human life means nothing more than any other life; that we will never face a Judgment Day.”

Sen. Chambers called the prayer “inexcusable.”

“This Legislature is not a chapel and this place is not a church.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation