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In Memoriam: Matt Stark fought hard for civil liberties

Matt Stark

Matt Stark, former president and executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, died on April 10 at age 88.

He was a Lifetime Member of FFRF, as is his surviving wife, Terri, who said, “FFRF was Matt’s favorite organization.” She will be completing a publication Matt had compiled on the history of 20 years of church/state battles in Minnesota.

“I support organizations with which I have fundamental agreement, such as FFRF, and I think what you guys are doing is absolutely wonderful,” Stark said in a January 2015 “Meet a Member” profile in Freethought Today. “Later in my life, when I came across FFRF, of course, I was absolutely delighted. I worked with Anne Nicol Gaylor and even sent FFRF a check to help put up a portrait of her in the new lobby!”

Stark was born Jan. 27, 1930, in New York City and remained there until he attended college at Ohio University. He earned two degrees in English and education in 1951 from Ohio University before attending the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master’s in educational psychology in 1959. He then earned a Ph.D. in educational administration and counseling at Western Reserve University in 1963.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota knew Stark well. “Matt was a friend to all who hunger for justice and fairness in our society, and his tireless advocacy helped to inspire me to run for office,” Ellison told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a news story about Stark’s death on April 15.

Stark first worked for the University of Minnesota, where he, through the ACLU, got in touch with Martin Luther King Jr.

“Martin Luther King Jr. and I developed a program where students at University of Minnesota were trained by me and others to go down South to Montgomery, Selma, etc., live there and work with black and white people positively concerned about race relations,” Stark said. “I met Dr. King through the ACLU and was his legal liaison.”

After leaving the university, Stark served as the Minnesota ACLU’s president for six years and then was its executive director from 1973-87. From there, he served on the board of directors, mostly as president, until 1998.

“Our clients are not the Nazis or the people who own porno stores,” Stark said, as reported in the Star Tribune. “Our client is the Bill of Rights. When we defend the Nazis or anyone unpopular, we’re not saying we necessarily agree with them. We’re defending their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble, or whatever. It’s only when we defend and win rights for the most hated in society that we’re protecting the rights for us all.”

“He was a zealous advocate for civil liberties,” Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune. “He was unwavering in his positions.”

He was a staunch supporter of reproductive freedom and state-church separation. He also was an early proponent of LGBT rights.

In 1970, ACLU Minnesota supported LGBT rights and in 1971 filed suit when two Minnesota men were denied a marriage license. It was the first time someone had sued over the right to marry a person of the same sex. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it refused to hear the case. It took 43 more years, but same-sex couples are now free to marry.

Terri Stark told the Star Tribune that although Matt knew he would lose that case, he also knew that eventually “gay people will have the same constitutional protections and liberties as everybody else,” she said. “He lived to see that come to fruition.”

“We send our warmest condolences to Terri on her loss. The movement has lost a monumental figure as well as a personal friend,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We admired Matt for the 30-plus years we knew him for his dedicated service to the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.”