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.

  • The Other Weirdo

    While Lautenberg was Jewish, he was a strong supporter of church/state separation.

    Is this subtle antisemitism really necessary? Do you really think that most of us Jews are against church/state separation?

  • Stev84

    You might as well say “Because he was Jewish”. Reform and conservative Jews aren’t religious fanatics.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    It’s not antisemitism to acknowledge that religion and secularism go together well. Now please, get out, because your privilege is showing.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I’ll never concede that people who think the guy that created stars, tectonics, and the mantis shrimp also wants you to cut off your infant son’s foreskin aren’t fanatics…but it’s easy to see why Jews would be pro-separation. It’s not because they’re not fanatical…it’s because they’re a minority.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    It’s not a good idea to advocate having your religion mandated by law when you’re part of a (latently) hated minority religion, so you might as well try to have your religion protected.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I have no idea what your response is since your sentences don’t parse logically.

    My…. privilege? How’s that, then?

  • ortcutt

    You still see Jewish groups like ADL occasionally filing briefs in Establishment Clause cases, but it really seems like the non-religious groups shoulder 99% of the burden of defending it these days. American Jewish Congress is gone, a victim of the Madoff affair. The days of organized Judaism being a leading champion of Separation are over.

  • Hemant Mehta

    Sorry if that came off wrong. I meant to imply that he was religious, but still a supporter of church/state separation. Nothing anti-semitic intended.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I think he/she meant to type “don’t” go together well.

  • The Other Weirdo

    If “Archer” has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey! Phrasing!” is vitally important to fostering misunderstanding-free communications.

    “Jewish” also doesn’t necessarily mean “religious”. There are atheistic Jews, after all.

  • Hemant Mehta

    I made an edit to the post. Hope that suffices.

  • Spuddie

    New Jersey is not exactly a hotbed of religious fanaticism either.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    No, religion and secularism actually seem to go together well.

  • WoodyTanaka

    Oh, for pete’s sakes, learn how to accept an apology when it is offered. (Even when one was not needed, like here.)

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Antisemitism is hatred against Jews. You have to be incredibly uncharitable to Hemant here to interpret that as expressing hatred against Jews. “Antisemitism” is an easy term to use with a lot of baggage and people will want to avoid being called antisemitic. As a result, “antisemitism” can be bandied about willy nilly and little scrutiny will be paid to the claim. It is there where it becomes privilege.

  • Negasta

    As when the Baptists of Danbury, CT wrote to Jefferson asking for protection from the Congregationalist majority in that town. However as soon as they got some power, they started enthusiastically undercutting the foundations of the very Wall of Separation that they asked for.

  • Houndentenor

    It makes sense that a member of a minority religion would see the value of separation of church and state.

  • Houndentenor

    One of many things I don’t understand about the religious right is that they don’t seem to understand that religion flourished in America precisely because there is no state church. Various denominations came and went but they were able to adapt and change to meet the demands of the public. In the Christian countries with a state church, almost no one attends. The best way to get rid of religion in America would be to institute an official state-run church. This is America. No one wants to do what they are told to do, especially by the government. The moment the government told us when, where, and how to worship, attendance would drop off just as it has in Europe and Australia.

  • cipher

    While Lautenberg was Jewish, he was a strong supporter of church/state separation.

    Most of us still are (unlike that imbecile from Virginia).

    And it isn’t merely because Jews are a minority, as some of you are saying. Jewish liberalism, which is firmly rooted in the tradition, has been an identifying cultural characteristic for so long it has become a cliche.

  • WoodyTanaka

    Lautenberg was good on this issue under the US Constitution. I hope that whoever Christie appoints (it’s too much to hope he won’t appoint a GOoPer), has that same view.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Words have shades of meaning beyond the black-and-white and unpacking soundbites is the funnest part of reading these things. Antisemitism can be overt like in the former Soviet Union, or it can be subtle, hiding behind a veil of plausible deniability. Sometimes it can also be a matter of unfortunate implications.

    While John was a Christian, he was on our side.

    “our side” here defined as being good, can you show me how the above doesn’t paint every Christian but John as the bad guy?

  • APJH

    Being “religious” and being “Jewish” are two different things. Was he a religious (i.e., observant) Jew?

  • allein

    Thank god for that ;)
    /Jersey girl

  • Guest

    89 years old? WhoTF is electing 80+ year old representatives? Dude should have been retired 20 years ago.

  • allein

    Not all 80+ folks are senile and demented. If we think he’s doing a good job, why not continue to elect him?

  • Anna

    I could only find articles saying that he belonged to a Reform synagogue and was active in Jewish causes throughout his life.

    Definitely a strong Jewish identification, but that’s not necessarily an indication of god-belief.

  • Spuddie

    That’s why it was better to trust Baptists when the Anabaptists were more reliable on the subject. They were the guys who first proposed the Wall of Separation in the 1600′s.

    Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were founded as refuges for people fleeing religious persecution on such principles.

  • usclat

    I hope not

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    So let me get this, because Hemant wrote something that could be interpreted as prejudiced against Judaists, it’s fine to associate him with the likes of Hitler, Luther and the Inquisition? Unless you’re a new reader, you’d have known “Hemant, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind changing this bit because it can be interpreted the wrong way” would have sufficed. Instead, you opted for the sledgehammer.