A milestone in American politics was reached this week when U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) stated that he has no belief in a supreme being.
Stark is the highest-ranking public official to come out of the closet as a non-believer. His emergence came about after the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington group that lobbies on behalf of non-religious Americans, sponsored a contest to find elected officials who openly hold no belief in God.
Stark's name was among 47 placed in nomination, and he agreed to a public airing of his views.
"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."
Stark has been in Congress since 1973 and currently serves as chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
A recent USA Today poll showed that 53 percent of those polled said they would not vote for an atheist, even if they otherwise liked the candidate's views. But Stark, who has been in office a long time and represents a liberal district, said he does not think his non-belief will be an issue.
"I don't know what relevance my opinion on a supreme being would have on Medicare policy," he told Inside Bay Area, a local newspaper. "I suppose, if you believe in faith healers."
Even a local evangelical minister downplayed the matter.
"I commend him for being public about his real feelings," said Kevin Hom, associate pastor at Fremont Community Church.
The U.S. Congress is increasingly diverse. This is a good thing because it means that body more accurately reflects the great diversity of our nation. This year, there are Buddhists in the ranks, as well as the first Muslim member. Stark is probably not the first non-believer in the House -- he's just the first to admit it.
"We hope that this will help break stereotypes that one needs to believe in a supreme being to lead an ethical and exemplary life," said Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition's director.
Here's hoping it will also remind people that there can be no religious test for public office in America. At the end of the day, all that should matter to the voters in California's 13th District is how well Rep. Stark is doing his job – not where and if he goes to religious services.