. . . to be specific, the godless readers of the The Friendly Atheist website, run by the estimable Hemant Mehta, who teaches high-school math in a Chicago suburb. If you follow his site, which is immensely popular, you’ll know that a park district, also in the Chicago suburbs, turned down a big donation because its source was godless (i.e., Hemant).
It all started this fall; as Hemant writes:
Back in October, I posted about how the American Legion Post 134 was financially boycotting the Morton Grove Park District because its Commissioner Dan Ashta wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at board meetings. Ashta’s sitting down for the Pledge cost the district $2,600 that the American Legion group had been giving them each year.
Ashta’s protest was apparently about the right of Americans to exercise their freedoms. But of course it was perceived as a slap in the face by the right-wing Legionnaires, who refused to give their customary donation. At that point Hemant stepped in, asking his readers to make up the shortfall, and they more than did so, raising a bit more than $3000 for the park district.
But the district refused it, sending back this letter:
There were, of course, no strings attached to the money that Hemant raised; the “First Amendment dispute” simply means either “Money from atheists is tainted by Satan,” or “If we took money from you heathens, nobody would ever donate to us again.”
So Hemant decided to donate the money to the Morton Grove Public Library instead. Again, there were no strings attached.
And the library’s trustees refused it.
Trying to find out what happened, Hemant talked to some people in the know, and then posted about it:
I asked the callers what reasons trustees offered and they said there were two main ones:
1) The board members were unhappy with things random commenters had written on this site’s Facebook page.
Between this site and Facebook, I easily get more than a thousand comments a day. I don’t sit around reading all of them. I rely on readers to flag things that are inappropriate, as do most large websites, and I focus on writing content.
To punish me (and the donors) for comments made by complete strangers makes as much sense as someone criticizing Pastor Mark Driscoll for things his Twitter followers write. It just makes no sense. Any journalist or blogger knows damn well that comment threads are not reflections of the writers. We may set the tone but we can’t turn off the trolls.
2) The board members felt there was something unsavory about taking money that donors were told would go to the Park District.
After the Park District rejected the money, I made very clear on this site that I would be giving the money to the library.
Not a single donor voiced any disappointment with that decision. The money was always supposed to benefit the people of Morton Grove. That’s why people donated. If the Park District didn’t want to be the conduit, then the library seemed to be a perfectly acceptable alternative for everyone.
. . . So, those were the board’s excuses. I firmly believe that if the money came from the “Friendly Christian,” none of this would be an issue. The “A” word is just freaking everybody out.
In an article about the kerfuffle, the Chicago Tribune found out some dtails that are even more disturbing:
Reached by phone Thursday, Mehta said he was surprised.
“I’m in shock right now,” he said. “I figured at least the library would take it.”
Library Board Treasurer Catherine Peters said she stopped library staff from depositing the check this month, calling it a matter that should be voted on by the board.
Board President Mark Albers, who voted to accept the donation, said he had no idea whether the money was from Mehta’s fundraising campaign or Mehta himself.
But many board members were more alarmed by the nature of Mehta’s blog and the ethical implications posed by accepting money from him.
Peters referred to the blog as a “hate group.”
Hate group? Are you serious? Hemant polices his site even more closely than I do mine. It’s absolutely unbelievable that it should be called a “hate group.” The real hate groups are those that damn unbelievers, Muslims, and Hindus to hell for not accepting Jesus.
Hemant adds an editorial note:
I appreciated how one commenter put it on the Tribune‘s website:
“A ‘hate group’ called the Friendly Atheist, that raises money for libraries.”
Finally, Hemant found out that the Morton Grove Library trustees videotaped their meeting, and posted it on YouTube. Big mistake! Here’s the video, and Hemant notes,
The relevant portion begins at the 32:15 mark
Hemant’s post on the video highlights the relevant parts, and some of them are funny but pathetic (for example, one trustee says that the “Friendly Atheist” facebook page uses the avatar “666”, when in fact a) Hemant doesn’t run the Facebook page, and b) the “666” was from an article about a female athlete in Kentucky who wouldn’t run a race when she was given that number (I’ve posted about this a short while ago).
Go look at Hemant’s column to see the gory details.
These people are not snake-handling, Bible-thumping yahoos; they are prosperous trustees of a library in a prosperious suburb. Nevertheless, they see atheists as if we all have “666” emblazoned on our foreheads. We have a long way to go. And of course they would have taken the money if it came from the Catholic Church: a real hate group.
I would respectively suggest that Hemant take that money and give it to a good secular organization that can use it to save lives instead of planting trees or buying books—some group like Doctors Without Borders. Morton Grove doesn’t deserve the money.
And I would love for some national paper or magazine to write about this incident. It bears on the recurring prejudice of the faithful against nonbelievers—a prejudice that made these trustees shoot themselves in the foot.