WASHINGTON — Cue the jokes about godless politicians and Bay Area liberals.
Secular groups Monday applauded a public acknowledgment by Rep. Pete Stark that he does not believe in a supreme being, making the Fremont Democrat the first member of Congress -- and the highest-ranking elected official in the U.S. -- to publicly acknowledge not believing in God.
The American Humanist Assn. plans to take out an ad in the Washington Post today congratulating the congressman for his public stance and highlighting the contributions of other prominent secular humanists, such as writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Kurt Vonnegut and actress Julia Sweeney.
Fred Edwords, a spokesman for the group, said non-theistic Americans often faced discrimination for their views.
"So often throughout American history, people who are non-theistic or don't believe in a supreme being can't get elected to public office or, if they inform the public of their view, they don't get reelected," he said. "We're trying to increase the acceptance of non-theists as every bit as American as everybody else."
Stark's declaration came in response to a search by the Secular Coalition for America to find the most prominent nonbelieving politician.
The advocacy group, which according to its website calls for extending "religious tolerance ... to people of all religions and to those without religious beliefs," offered a $1,000 prize to the person who could identify the "highest-level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States."
A member of American Atheists California nominated Stark.
Ron Millar, associate director of the Secular Coalition for America, said the group wanted to highlight how hard it was for politicians to take a public stance about not believing in God. He said members were "pleasantly surprised" with Stark's candor.
"We didn't think we'd have any member of Congress come forward," Millar said.
Stark, who has served in Congress since 1973 and chairs the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, clarified his views in an e-mail statement.
"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Stark said. "Like our nation's founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services."
Unitarian Universalism describes itself as creedless, meaning that it has no underlying authoritative statement of religious belief. Some members believe in God; others do not.
A USA Today/Gallup poll last month found that 45% of respondents said they would vote for a "well qualified" presidential candidate who was an atheist. Ninety-five percent said they would vote for a Catholic candidate, 92% a Jewish candidate and 72% a Mormon candidate.