In Memoriam: Pete Stark, 1931-2020

Fortney H. “Pete” Stark Jr., the 2008 Humanist of the Year who served in the US House of Representatives representing California’s 13th District for four decades, died on January 24 at his home in Harwood, Maryland, from Leukemia. He was eighty-eight.

In the fall of 2006 the Secular Coalition for America announced that they would award $1,000 to the person who identified the highest-level atheist, humanist, freethinker, or other nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States. SCA Advisory Board Chairman Woody Kaplan, a civil liberties activist and former member of the ACLU’s National Board of Directors, took some of the suggested names and interviewed close to sixty members of the US House and Senate. “At the time, twenty-two of them told me they didn’t believe in a god,” Kaplan recalled. “Twenty-one of them said, ‘You can’t tell anybody.’ One of them said you could: Congressman Pete Stark.”

Stark, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and chair of its Health Subcommittee, made history on March 12, 2007, when he became the first member of Congress to go on record as a nontheist. Stark was subsequently named the 2008 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association for his strong support of religious freedom and for the separation of church and state. Read the adaptation of his acceptance speech, “The Accidental Atheist: From Hippie to Humanist in Half a Century,” here.