Tribute to David Niose: A Formidable Advocate for American Secularism

Today marks the end of David Niose’s five-year tenure as director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which was launched in 2006 as the legal arm of the American Humanist Association (AHA).

Niose graduated from Boston University in 1984 and from Suffolk University Law School in 1990, after which he worked as a civil litigator in private practice in Boston, Massachusetts. He left to head the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) in 2014, having served on the AHA board of directors from 2005-2012, including as president for his final four years.

Niose’s contributions to humanism are vast, and include his development of AHA public awareness campaigns to raise the profile of humanists in the greater culture, his media appearances and numerous speaking engagements, and the contest he initiated in 2007 that resulted in Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) becoming the first member of Congress to openly identify as an atheist. Niose has worked with the Secular Coalition for America to help advocate for the rights of secular Americans and has served on the boards of Greater Worcester Humanists and Greater Boston Humanists.

In 2012, Niose published Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans and followed it with Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason in 2014. He’s written for Psychology Today, the Washington Post, Newsday, the Huffington Post, and other mainstream outlets. And he’s been a regular contributor to and the Humanist magazine, for which he interviewed Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky and wrote numerous commentaries and book reviews.

As an attorney, Niose has litigated cases in state and federal courts across the country. As director of AHA’s legal team, he’s advocated for church/state separation and the rights of humanists and other nontheists, including implementing a legal strategy to enforce those rights through the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution.

I asked the following leaders in the humanist community who’ve worked closely with David to share their thoughts and tributes as he returns to private practice. While his wisdom, vision, composure, and legal ingenuity are oft-praised, I would add that he has a wonderfully wry wit and an enviable deftness when it comes to verbal slings and arrows. I’ll never forget the afternoon we spent in a fascinating and meandering three-hour conversation with Gore Vidal at Vidal’s home in the Hollywood Hills. I know I speak for the entire staff of the American Humanist Association in wishing David the very best.

From Gordon Gamm, AHA supporter and Humanist Legal Society Board Member:

I have known David Niose as a friend, as a kind and gentle man, and as someone who has played an instrumental role in promoting humanism, in part by establishing the Humanist Legal Society and recruiting a magnificent team of lawyers to participate. David has been successful in making the public aware that humanism is not an abstract philosophy but has a real impact on our law and our society.

David also has been instrumental in establishing a national reputation for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC), which represents a humanist worldview as it applies to the law and for which I have had the privilege of filing amicus briefs. We are a secular country governed by the collective conscience of “We, the people … in order to form a more perfect union” by promoting the “general welfare.” We, as humanists, are indebted to you, David, and thank you for your valuable service.

From Abby Hafer, author of The Not-So-Intelligent Designer—Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not and the upcoming Darwin’s Apostles:

David Niose helped me find my way into the humanist movement. He and Ellery Schempp (the primary student in the 1963 Supreme Court decision that found mandatory Bible readings in public schools unconstitutional) had arranged for Noam Chomsky to deliver a talk at the Unitarian church in my town of Bedford, Massachusetts. David was, at the time, the head of the Greater Worcester Humanists. I had recently begun my career as debunker of intelligent design, having put together my somewhat infamous talk that features men’s testicles as a great argument against intelligent design in the human body. Ellery introduced me to David, and I asked if his group would be interested in hearing my talk, which they were. Since that time, David has introduced me to numerous humanist leaders.

As a result, I have been able to speak at numerous national conferences for humanists and other secular groups and to more individual humanist groups than I can count. I’ve met wonderful people all over the world who have become my friends. None of this would have happened if David had not been such an insightful and energetic leader. I have watched with delight as he has risen within the humanist movement. He has been consistently friendly, generous, helpful, and delightful to be around. I wish him the best as he moves on, and I hope I still get to see him from time to time.

From Rebecca Hale, former AHA President and Humanists International Board Member:

David and I both joined the American Humanist Association board in 2005 along with Carl Coon and Susan Sackett.  David was an early and supportive voice for moving humanism into the mainstream. I remember how enthusiastically he embraced the need for paid advertising as a means to make a broader audience aware of what a humanist is. However, his crowning achievement has been to help bring the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) to fruition. Dave and Mel Lipman (then AHA president) were both attorneys who saw the potential for the AHA to become a voice for humanism and church/state separation within our movement. David’s willingness to step away from his private practice to focus his energies on the legal center made a significant and determining difference in whether or not the AHLC was to be a small blip or a large powerful voice in the efforts to protect the rights of humanists and nontheists within the United States. His efforts ensured we would have that large powerful voice.

We all owe a great debt and a heartfelt “thank you” to David for his work on behalf of humanism and the AHA.

From Hemant Mehta, Editor of

I’ve been fortunate to know David Niose for nearly my entire career as an atheist activist. He has always been the voice of reason, even in rooms where everyone thought that description applied to them. Even when we think we’re on the right track, David is the guy who can chime in with a comment that makes us all rethink our position. That’s not easy to find. He’s a leader that other leaders look up to. We’re lucky he’s on our side.

I’ve always found his judgment invaluable, his criticisms reasonable, and his output incredible. I have no doubt he’ll continue to be prolific even outside the AHA.

From Monica L. Miller, Senior Counsel, Appignani Humanist Legal Center:

David Niose with AHLC Paralegal Izzy Oldfield (center) and Senior Counsel Monica Miller (right)

It hasn’t hit me that Dave’s leaving, but I know it will hit hard when I’m still up at 4:00 am finishing a brief and he won’t be on the other side of the computer ready to review before dawn. Our sleep schedules were remarkably complementary. I could go on for pages (a “Monica Letter,” as he coined it) about everything I’ve learned from Dave’s leadership (both as AHA’s president and then as legal director), but one piece of advice that will always stick with me is: “Don’t ever admit to anyone that you watch The Bachelor.” The cat was already long out of that bag, but the sentiment behind the advice was felt. He’s always made it clear that he cares about me and about my career. He gave me confidence at times when I was unsure of myself, and encouraged me to take leaps when I didn’t feel ready. He was always a voice of reason, wit, and compassion. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I didn’t have Dave by my side all these years, and it should go without saying that he’ll be deeply missed

From Sunil Panikkath, AHA President:

During the ten years or so that I have known David Niose, I have never heard him raise his voice in anger or frustration. David’s leadership skills, especially his unrelentingly composed personality, were a big factor in his ability to steward the AHA board as president at a transformational time for the organization, from which it evolved into much more actively advancing the rights of nontheists through grassroots advocacy and legal challenges. David successfully led the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) during a period when some of the organization’s most important legal cases were heard by US courts, including the Supreme Court. He brought forward the idea that protecting the rights of nontheists must go beyond church-state separation arguments to relying on the equal protection clauses in the US and state constitutions. While more progress needs to be made, that idea may yet turn out to be his most important contribution to advancing the cause of nontheism in America. While he will be sorely missed at the AHLC and the AHA, I wish him the very best in everything he plans for the future.

From Herb Silverman, Founder of the Secular Coalition for America and former AHA Board Member:

David Niose with Herb Silverman

While an AHA board member in 2003, I was sent a book called Rethinking Radicalism by someone named David Anthony. The book urged humanists and atheists to put aside their small differences and begin cooperating. I was impressed by the book and wrote a five-star review on Amazon, mentioning also the newly formed Secular Coalition for America (SCA). David Anthony read the review and got in touch with me. In a wonderful first conversation of many, I learned that “David Anthony” was a pseudonym David Niose had used, thinking people would have trouble pronouncing “Niose.” (It’s “knee-oh-see” if you’re wondering.)

I helped Dave get in touch with the Secular Coalition and also recommended him for the AHA board. Dave turned out to be a much better board member than I had even hoped. It was my honor to nominate him for the AHA presidency and to watch the wonderful job he did in that role and all the other roles he has played in our movement. On my recommendation, Dave succeeded me as president of SCA for a year before leaving to become AHA’s legal director. Dave’s impact on our movement has been incredible. And as all who are lucky enough to know him realize, he is also an exceptionally nice guy. It’s been a privilege to know Dave and his wife Katie for so many years.

From Roy Speckhardt, AHA Executive Director:

Dave Niose is the kind of person humanists aspire to be, with a compassionate, respectful, reasoned approach to everything he does. Dave personally advanced the humanist movement leaps and bounds through his creative approaches to bringing positive attention to our cause. His inspired leadership, powerful writing, and legal ingenuity continues to open doors and raise our sights about what we can accomplish.

From Michael Werner, former AHA President:

There are rare leaders who are patient, wise, and know how to bring people together to take action. David Niose is such a brilliant leader who exhibits everything a humanist should be and has made the American Humanist Association stronger, more pertinent, and farther reaching.