Senator Frank Lautenberg, Champion of Church/State Separation, Dies at 89

Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, died this morning from viral pneumonia at the age of 89. While he was planning on retiring in 2014, the remainder of his term could be filled through a special appointment by NJ Governor Chris Christie or by a special election.

While Lautenberg was religious (Jewish), he was a strong supporter of church/state separation. reported that Americans United for Separation of Church and State gave Lautenberg a 100% approval rating on church/state issues, and the Secular Coalition for America gave him a perfect A grade in 2009.

When the Senate passed a resolution “lauding the Ten Commandments and urging its display” in 1998, the measure sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said the display should be featured “in the Supreme Court, the Capitol building, the White House, and other government offices and courthouses across the nation.” It was Lautenberg who appended that sentence with the phrase: “… as long as it is consistent with the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Even before that, when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) invited his fellow senators to join him on a “private tour of the U.S. Capitol building” with pseudo-historian David Barton in 1995, Lautenberg urged Frist to withdraw his invite because Barton promoted the idea of America as a Christian-only nation. He said to Frist that 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.” In response, Frist ended up taking a tour with only his wife and some aides.

Lautenberg also opposed school vouchers which would use taxpayer money to pay for religious schools, opposed abstinence-only education, and authored the Ryan White Care Act, the “largest federally-funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS.”

On a lighter note, in 1988, Lautenberg defeated a Republican named Dawkins on his way to a second term in the Senate.

We’ve lost one of the good ones.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.