Ernie Chambers

Photo by Brent Nicastro Photo by Brent Nicastro

On this date in 1937, Ernest Chambers, known as "the Maverick of Omaha" and "defender of the downtrodden," was born in Omaha, Neb., where he has since resided. Chambers understood early on the power of protest and of grassroots organizing, standing up for civil rights as a youth and emerging as a leader of African American youths in Omaha. He graduated from Creighton University School of Law, and was first elected to the Nebraska Legislature as a state senator in 1970. Chambers broke the starched suit and tie rules, wearing T-shirts to the Legislature, on Donahue, to the United Nations and to meet President Carter. He was the only black member of the legislature, in an overwhelmingly white, ultraconservative state, for most of his career. Chambers became known for defending the rights of women, gays and lesbians, farmers and criminals. He challenged paid prayers before the Nebraska Legislature in the Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers (1983), and although the Supreme Court ruled against him, Chambers was successful in subsequently persuading the Senate (a unicameral branch) to drop payment for prayers. Rita Swan of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) said in 2005: "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." CHILD presented Chambers with its child advocacy service award for successfully arguing that "no parent should have a religious right to deprive a child of necessary health care" and keeping a religious exemption to health care from being enacted in that state.

Chambers cleverly filed a lawsuit in 2007 against "God" (Chambers v. God) to make a point about frivolous lawsuits. Chambers, who identifies as nonreligious without using a label, sought a permanent injunction against the Defendant for making terroristic threats against him and his constituents, of inspiring fear and causing "widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants." In October 2008, the judge threw out his lawsuit against God, saying the Defendant wasn’t properly served due to his unlisted home address. Chambers, accepting the Hero of the First Amendment Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the audience: "What I would do, from time to time, is mock, taunt, and ridicule my colleagues for injecting religion and Jesus into the Legislature" (Nov. 12, 2005). Chambers' political opponents, in a successful effort to finally unseat him from the Senate when they could not do so electorally, passed a law in 2000 establishing term-limits for Nebraska legislators so he was unable to seek reelection in 2008. In 2005, Chambers became Nebraska's longest-serving state senator.

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

—-Ernie Chambers in his acceptance speech for the "Hero of the First Amendment" award at the 27th annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention (Nov. 12, 2005)

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; Photo by Brent Nicastro

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