Freethought NOW!

Hip, hip hooray Ireland and Ernie Chambers

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What a week for reason — as well as humanity — to prevail.

Dan and I arrived at the International Atheist Convention 2015 gathering in Cologne, Germany, on Friday, May 22, which began on the same day as the historic referendum vote of the Irish people on marriage equality. Michael Nugent, the chair of Atheist Ireland, who was also speaking, arrived late, flying in from Dublin after first casting his ballot. The polls closed in the Republic of Ireland at 10 p.m., and Michael informed us the vote-counting wouldn’t even begin until Saturday.

He — and we — were on tenterhooks Saturday morning during the conference as Michael kept consulting text messages. By mid-morning it was already looking like a landslide for the “yes” vote. Michael began handing out “Yes Equality” rainbow pins. By early afternoon, it was conclusive: All but one county had voted for the right to gay marriage. In the end, 62% of Irish voters in what was formerly an overwhelmingly pious Catholic nation, had said “yes.”

As Michael pointed out, the Ireland he would return to after the conference was a completely different Ireland than he had left. When Ireland had hosted the 2011 Atheist Alliance International conference, he’d announced that his hope was that Ireland would catch up with the rest of the European Union. Now Ireland leads the rest of the EU and the world by becoming the first nation to approve gay marriage by a vote of the people.

As I noted in my remarks before the conference Sunday, the Irish gave the Roman Catholic Church the hold heave-ho, by choosing humanity over dogma. Given the decades and centuries of thralldom of the Irish to the Church, the vote was indeed a massive rejection of Catholicism.

As we flew home Tuesday . . . and Wednesday (our international flight was delayed, then cancelled until the next day) we followed the breaking news in our own country. “My hero,” Ernie Chambers, had finally, after more than four decades, persuaded his fellow and sister state senators in Nebraska to repeal the death penalty. The Wednesday papers I got hold of upon arrival said the governor had vetoed the bill.

So it was with great delight that I woke up this morning to the news that the unicameral Nebraska Senate on Wednesday had overridden that veto, making Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. Nebraska joins 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning the death penalty.

The United States deplorably lags behind the rest of the world (excepting theocratic Islamic regimes) with its bible-influenced “vengeance is mine” adherence to the death penalty. It’s no surprise it took a nonreligionist to champion Nebraska’s repeal.

Ernie Chambers is a famous name in Establishment Clause law. He’s the senator who had the courage and gumption to fight paid prayer in his legislature in the 1980s —when  “nonsuperstitionists” (as he has called himself) were even rarer than they are today, much less legislators willing to take on governmental prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), forged an outlier decision that was worsened and reaffirmed in last year’s Greece case. However, Ernie ended up persuading the unicameral Nebraska Senate to drop the paid part of those prayers, anyway.

As a persevering civil libertarian whose largely African-American constituency adored him and kept sending him back to office, Ernie was such a thorn in the side of the Senate that he was even term-limited out of office in 2008 after 38 years. Ernie sat out the requisite four years, then ran again as Nebraska’s famous maverick state senator.

What an enormous personal victory for Ernie, for reason, for humanity and for the state of Nebraska.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud Ernie accepted our “Champion of the First Amendment” Award in 2005.

By the way, Ernie famously sued “God” in 2007, in a tongue in cheek lawsuit meant to champion keeping the courtroom doors open to plaintiffs: “. . . anybody can file a lawsuit against anybody — even God,” Chambers said at the time. His legal complaint is a masterpiece of freethought. The suit said God had caused “calamitous catastrophes resulting in the wide-spread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants including innocent babes, infants, children, the aged and infirm without mercy or distinction.”

Chambers also said God “has manifested neither compassion nor remorse, proclaiming that defendant will laugh” when calamity comes.

Ernie asked the court to “waive personal service.”

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