FFRF pays tribute to atheist ex-Rep. Pete Stark

The Freedom From Religion Foundation pays tribute to former U.S. Rep. Pete Stark — the only “out” atheist in Congress of his generation — who died on Jan. 24.

Stark received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion, in 2010. In a video acceptance speech, Stark explained how his nonbelief became public:

In 2007, the Secular Coalition For America surveyed members of Congress about their religious beliefs. I answered that I didn’t believe in a supreme being. Within a week I had 5,000 responses from around the world, almost all of them favorable, and those that weren’t favorable were very kind. I’ve never had such kindness directed toward me by people who disagreed with me.

He also said, “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be in the same league as George Carlin. More importantly, I want to thank all of you, along with the leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, for the marvelous work you do. Due to your efforts, many people have the freedom to exercise their beliefs or nonbeliefs, as the case may be.”

More recently, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, representing a northern California constituency, has publicly identified as an agnostic and humanist, also receiving FFRF’s “Emperor Has No Clothes Award,” which he accepted in person at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco in 2018. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, speaking at FFRF’s convention last fall in Madison (his home base), said he was one “of us” who do not follow a particular religion. Both are members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which formed in 2018 under the tutelage of Huffman and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin. There are now 12 members of the caucus, which promotes state/church separation and champions the rights of nonbelievers.

Stark spent 40 years in Congress representing the liberal district of East Bay in northern California. He grew up Republican but switched sides as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Stark was a member of the Ways and Means Committee and chair of that panel’s subcommittee on health. The New York Times placed him “in the forefront of health care debates, playing a major role in shaping the nation’s health care policies and in protecting Medicare and Social Security from program cuts.” This included writing parts of the Affordable Care Act, including creating the COBRA program protecting individuals who’ve lost their jobs.

The Times obituary called Stark “ahead of his time” as a policymaker, and an early proponent of universal health care and a carbon tax. The obituary noted that Stark, a straight shooter who did not mince words, was “less popular with his congressional colleagues.” When President George W. Bush vetoed an increase in funding for a children’s health insurance program, Stark accused Bush of sending soldiers to Iraq “to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” Close to be censured, Stark apologized on the House floor for the remark, cheekily adding: “But I respect neither the commander in chief who keeps them in harm’s way nor the chickenhawks in Congress who vote to deny children health care.”

Stark believed in speaking the truth — about freethought and a whole lot else. FFRF feels honored to pay homage to a member of Congress whose honesty helped pave the way for other freethinking legislators, as well as the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

“Our Emperor Award is for those who ‘tell it like it is about religion,’” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Clearly Pete Stark’s philosophy was to ‘tell it like it is,’ period. We honor his forthrightness and generosity to the freethought movement, and his lifetime accomplishments.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Send this to a friend