Local park district, then library, reject $3000 donation because it came from atheists

December 21, 2013 • 6:57 am

. . . 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:

Picture 1There 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.

59 thoughts on “Local park district, then library, reject $3000 donation because it came from atheists

  1. How awful. I’ve commented on Hemant’s site sometimes and I’ve found the atmosphere there troll free. Clearly these trustees are just bigots who shouldn’t be trusted with library work. It’s a shame an atheist wasn’t among the trustees so he/she could hold a mirror up to their bad behaviour.

    1. There was a similar case here in Ireland a few years ago when a cancer charity refused to take a donation from a certain woman because she was a Page 3 model.

      I’m afraid smug gits are everywhere.

      1. Wow. Now I want to get on these boards to be that one annoying person that tells that other annoying person that they are annoying. 🙂

    2. Two of the board members voted to accept the donation, so they’re not all bigots. Having worked in public libraries for many years (in my first career), I know that many library boards are like this. There’s always at least one bully (like Peters) who likes to lord it over everyone else. Unfortunately, there are also those who generally don’t contribute, and don’t want to rock the boat, so they support the bully.

      1. Yes I noticed that – from Hemant’s write up that one person disagreed with the bully while the others remained silent then voted for the bully. Terrible.

        1. Oh and I forgot to add that those that went along with the bully are de facto bigots by voting the way they did. I don’t go along with racist or sexist remarks by peers and in this way neither should these people.

      2. This why I can no longer serve on these types of boards. There is always at least one person, who is usually the most ignorant one on the board, who wants to control each meeting. I don’t have the patience to deal with these people anymore without being rude.

        1. IMO you should participate and just live with being rude.

          (Although, speaking as someone who has been on such boards, it can reeeeeealy try one’s patience.)

  2. Actually, there is a Friendly Atheist page on Facebook. I suspect it works the way your Twitter does – his site automatically posts links to each new post when he publishes it.

    But Facebook being Facebook, people don’t click through on the link, they just post their comments there 😉

  3. Librarians ? Are they not / Do they not purport themselves to actually BE … … The Guardians of NOT banning and of NOT burning books ? What the heck ?

    This whole deal is just so, so sad. It just makes for such somber head – shaking.

    QUITE, QUITE correct: “Morton Grove doesn’t deserve the money.”

    A DarkEST Day, indeed = The Winter Solstice ! so Let The Light Return !


        1. As I was a librarian for 21 years, this is a highly objectionable decision. There is definitely a difference between the the librarian who does the managing and boards who oversee them.

  4. Based on the ages of the board members, a poll published this week about religiosity based on age and demographics indicates that at least 4 and possibly 5 of the six members whose faces are visible are quite likely to have strong faith in Christian theology.

    Nonetheless, out of all the senior citizen white people in Morton Grove, I would have anticipated library board members would be among the least likely to buy into ignorant trope about atheism. This is disappointing.

    On the bright side, maybe this inane response to selfless generosity will encourage the kids in the community to question prejudice even more critically.

  5. “The Park Board has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute or allegations it is sympathetic to or supports/doesn’t support any particular political or religious cause.”


    “The Park Board has no intention of becoming embroiled in a covertly aggressive battle with Peters, and therefore has acquiesced to her bullying. (We did stand up to her a bit when we insisted on not adding ‘except Christianity’ at the end of our statement.)”

    Anyways, Peters, please continue your clueless ways regarding the Net because you will continue to unintentionally fight our battles. Thank you. 🙂

  6. A little more publicity about this and these foolish “leaders” in Morton Grove are going to wish they had taken the money when first offered. This is shameful. I hope this goes viral.

  7. Agreed, Morton Grove doesn’t deserve the money given the way they have acted. Publicity would be good for them, because none of it will look favorably for them.

  8. Morton Grove is a dinky suburb in the greater Chicago area. There was a silly incident in which some veteran group was planning to donate money to the district, but pulled their donation because one of the board members refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance for constitutional reasons. While the vets may have been petty and unprincipled, I don’t think that the incident merited Mehta collecting money to make the donation in the veterans’ stead, especially considering that there are tons of more worthy and pressing causes (and the suburb already collects a high property tax from its residents). When the MG government refused the money due to “atheist cooties,” Mehta tried the library. While I see no reason for atheists to fill the coffers of this suburb, their refusal to take the money because it comes from an atheist group is truly egregious, and the video of the library board meeting should be disturbing to everyone (note how many ignorant people make decisions for our lives at even local government levels). The video is also a psychological portrait of little municipalities everywhere. The fact that the board meeting for a small library starts off with the pledge of allegiance (as if they are in the US Senate) suggests delusions of grandeur. Of course, when you call atheists a “hate group,” you are just delusional.

  9. WOW! That was a shocking video. At least that kook got some push back. They need to get that nutty woman off their board. The chairman (or the guy at the head seat) tossed their wish list on the center of the table and said the check would buy everything on it. That insane woman who was leading the group and the other four that voted with her (5-2) should cover the entire amount.

  10. Did I hear “Amen”??????????

    at 44:55

    “Return the check. 5 to 2. Case closed. Case closed. Amen.” I’m pretty sure I heard an “Amen.” Did anyone else hear that???

    1. My hearing isn’t all that great, but I think you may have heard correctly. Sure sounded like “Amen” to me.

  11. Wow.

    Those poll results from some time back showing that atheists are less popular than rapists?

    This is what that looks like.

    I could understand certain organizations being picky about where they get their donations from…but parks and libraries?

    That’s so stunning that I’m also left wondering how much Hemant’s natural permanent suntan has to do with the decisions. It’s the exact same type of bigotry.


  12. Good that the meeting was visually documented.

    Would they have accepted an anonymous donation? Or would they have first required a declaration of the donor’s religious opinions?

    1. An excellent question. Perhaps a few anonymous donations should be sent to see if the cash the checks. Would they take cash?

      1. At least one of these anonymous donations should be from someone who is not a resident of Morton Grove. This might be a chance to reveal the hypocrisy of Peters. Recall that early on in the discussion she said that one reason to reject the donation was because it was not from a Morton Grove resident. She even suggested that the Morton Grove Library’s bylaws or some official library document prohibited them from accepting donations from non-residents. I would wager that she would gladly vote to accept a non-resident donation so long as she thinks it is not coming from an atheist.

  13. There is a silver lining in this cloud. Most of the commenters (with predictable exceptions) after the short article in the Chicago Tribune aren’t fooled by Peters’ misrepresentations and hypocrisy.

  14. I’m wondering if the library contains books on atheism. And if so, do these persons know about it? Would they insist those materials be removed?

        1. Yes. Hemant should donate his books to the Morton Grove library — with a flourish.

          I’d also suggested at PZ’s that ‘The Friendly Atheist’ blog should announce that they will give their generous donation to whichever worthy charity writes the best letter to the editor in Chicago-area paper (or comes out with the best public statement) decrying the intolerance and bigotry of Morton Grove. Let the games begin…

    1. Possibly, but my experience of working in public libraries might suggest otherwise (I hope so). Most public libraries (even small ones) have a book selection policy that takes NYT bestseller status and other factors into account. So, for example, Dawkins’ “God Delusion” or Hitchens’ “God is not Great” would likely get purchased simply because they were popular books.

      When I worked in public libraries during the 70s and 80s, one of my jobs was to help the many small libraries in our library system fend off the many attempts at censorship (usually by conservative or religious groups). Mostly, they wanted to rid the shelves of books about evolution (which is what sparked my interest in the C/E fight), or books they thought were morally offensive (Judy Blume’s books were a frequent target). We would explain the book selection criteria and tell them they were free to participate in the book selection process (provided they were duly appointed or selected by the library’s board or staff). Most of these folks didn’t want to follow the rules, so that was usually the end of it.

      Nowadays, with the culture war raging out of control, things may be different, so I don’t know how well small public libraries are faring.

  15. ” . . . 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.”

    I’ve just opened my most recent mailing from the Amuricun Lejun pressing me to rejoin, a carrot for doing so being a “FREE American Legion wristwatch.”

    As I view the contents, their main selling pitch consists of an assortment of consumer discounts, not surprising in this Amuricun consumerist culture. There’s not one word regarding the Legion’s religioso predilections evident in this posting, nor regarding the “American Exceptionalism” – inflected “100% Americanism” ideology the Legion advocates.

    To qualify for membership, one has to have been on active duty during a time of officially-declared military conflict. (Apparently the Legion needs the U.S. to occasionally invade other countries so as to keep up its membership numbers.) I was on active duty during the 1983 Grenada invasion, about which at the time I knew nothing. I’ve learned a thing or two since then and I disagree with the invasion, so I don’t see how I possibly qualify for membership.

  16. Absolutely outrageous. As an outsider looking in (I’m from England) it is things like this that make Americans look really dim. Which obviously isn’t the case at all…but jeez! The video should be publicised as much as possible. Nothing beats simply exposing idiocy for all to see.

      1. Done. If they try to cover their biggity little tracks, I’ll make a condensed version and send a link to Hermant. I might even make another version with “Yakkety Sax” softly in the background and farting noises whenever Peters bullies.

  17. Morton Grove Library board seems to have been politicized with two groups contesting in the April 2011 election: B-PAC and PROLibrary. The latter wanting to expand the library; the former wanting to cut costs. B-PAC won and has controlled since; Cathy Peters seems to be the most prominent member of B-PAC.

    Another recent incident involves showing R-rated movies and the student employee (a 16 year old girl with her parent’s permission) who was screening them (as well as presumably other non-R movies). Among other things Cathy Peters personally ordered the girl to leave her assigned duty when “Safety Not Guaranteed” was shown.

  18. Ironically, many atheists actually supported the 666 girl in that we thought it was unreasonably pushing the issue not to let her have a different number… it’s not like numbers are expensive.

  19. It’s hard to take any board meeting seriously when there’s a microwave on the counter directly behind the board president.

  20. I have a feeling that this situation was primed by the earlier flag salute squabble. That started the polarization, and atheists stepping into the vacuum probably made it much more volatile than if an atheist donation had come out of nowhere. It probably appeared (not incorrectly) that the atheists (not incorrectly) were jumping in to make a statement in defense of the flag salute member. If an organization like ACLU did something similar, I suppose there may have been a similar flare up.

    1. Just to be clear, rereading my comment, I think Mehta’s action was excellent and appropriate. But sometimes doing the right thing still gets your hand bitten.

  21. I don’t get it, the atheist money still says “In God We Trust” on it. Won’t that bit of magic keep the evil taint off of it?

  22. I just watched the relevant part of the video and noticed that after the vote, the chairman says in apparent relief and without any noticeable irony “I think we just closed off a can of worms.”

    No. No you didn’t.

    On the contrary.

    Given the blog excerpts the woman read and the reactions of some of the members (squirming and twisting in their seats) it looks like what really set them off was mockery of religion. Atheists were making crude and humorous comments about a cloud which looks like a penis in a painting of the crucifixion.

    A “friendly” atheist wouldn’t attack religion or say anything bad about it — except, possibly, in an academic and philosophical tone. This is what they want to punish.
    Doesn’t matter what else Hemant writes about. He allowed atheists a forum for sneering.

    Religious privilege; faith as a virtue; overweening demands for respect and special sensitivity.

  23. As I’ve mentioned here before, one of the great things about Andrew Carnegie is that his largesse only extended to churches to the extent that he’d honor requests for pipe organs, on the basis that he thought that music had a good influence on people. But as many know, he did fund construction of 1,679 public libraries in the US, nearly doubling their number by the time the program ended in 1919.

    That said, Hemant, as president of of the organization that owns and operates the first Carnegie Library in the US, in Braddock PA, a rustbelt town embarked on renewal, if you are hunting for a library-based recipient, I think I can speak for our board in being happy if you’d consider us as your recipient. Contact may be made via our host.

  24. When accepting a small donation from an individual or group who isn’t associated with criminals and makes no demands on the receiver becomes a matter for the board, you know you’ve got to fire the board and the head librarian and hire some competent people.

    1. From a bit of web searching

      In Morton Grove the board is elected and it was a board member who stopped the check from being deposited (which may be a questionable action on her part since individual board members aren’t allowed to intervene in the library, only the board as a whole [apparently this has been an ongoing problem with some on the current board]) and insisted that the donation be decided by the board. I would not blame the head librarian or any of the librarians in Morton Grove for this (blame the eligible voters in Morton Grove who either didn’t vote at all or who voted for the b-pac coalition on the board).

  25. At least 50% of the Library board members in our village in the West Kootenay area of BC are”atheistically inclined”. Most of the rest are lukewarm non-practicing Xtians. Our last two Librarians were atheists. I am not an author but I donated, soon after we retired to this village from The Bible Belt in Alberta, one book or DVD every month, whose topic was atheism, for three years. They formed the basis for the first atheist related collection in BC.
    Our Librarian, who had been with our local library for 25 years, had to restrict “my” books that she released for inter-library loan because, in her words, the demand was so great
    that none would have been left for local readers.

  26. I think the chairman?? did a reasonably good job plus he mentions that one of the members wants to go to a “holiday party” afterwards. He also says “Have a happy holiday everyone”. Also, the one trustee that spoke out against Peters position was a respectable person.

    Earlier in the meeting (28:52) they talked about a possible donation from someone that resided in California, considering a donation of $500 to $1000. That potential donor wanted to know what the money would be spent on and the discussion eventually lead to restricting the disposition. Oddly enough a trustee communicated that the donor expressed a desire to have the money spent on some “material” object as opposed to being used to defray expenses. The board decided to have the library staff present a list that would be sent to the donor to choose from. [Apparently, materialism is a whip to be used only on atheists]

    There are a couple of other interesting points within the video, not all are related to the ‘very scary’ atheist check:
    2:34 Public comment; background of donors should be looked into.
    11:52 Disposition of check will be talked about (very short).
    15:05 Explanation of the atheist donation and how it was originally turned down by the parks department. (Ends about 20:10)
    21:10 Chairman uses the term “holiday party”.
    25:40 Dialog suggestive of prior conflict between Peters and other trustees.
    26:25 Peters agreeing with trustee making a suggestion, trustee comments, “Oh [her god], I’m in trouble now” as Peters agrees with her.
    28:00 LOL, Peters makes a motion to accept policy, and after discussion, was also the only one that voted against it. Someone clears throat immediately following Peters “no” vote.
    28:52 California donation, noted above.
    32:15 Segment discussed by Dr. Coyne.
    42:20 666 Peters: “Why wouldn’t that be just numbers to them” [Sha-zam!]
    47:51 Another public comment from “head of youth services” saddened about not accepting donation. Peters interrupts and objects to the commenter being allowed to speak. Chairman overrules stating that he gave permission. The commenter is allowed to talk momentarily then is interrupted again, after which Peters asserts that non-residents are not allowed to speak saying that the commenter is not a resident.
    53:28 Chairman says, “Have a nice holiday everybody”

    Yet, christians still wonder why no one likes them.

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