An Illinois park district has refused a $3,000 donation by an atheist blogger to avoid controversy.
The Morton Grove Park District had lost about $2,600 in funding after a local veterans group pulled its donations because an atheist park board member refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Naperville teacher Hemant Mehta asked readers of his “Friendly Atheist” blog to donate money to the park district and sent a check, but an official said the check was returned.
Tracey Anderson, executive director of the park district, told Mehta in an email that the board had “no intention in becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
She also said officials don’t want to appear to be taking sides with “any particular political or religious cause.”
Mehta told The Chicago Tribune he was “a little shocked” by the district turning down his donation, saying that he thought board members had given him the go-ahead.
“I kind of feel like I mentioned exactly why I was giving the donation early on, and they said, ‘If you want to send a donation, send it to us,’” Mehta said.
American Legion Post 134 had withdrawn its funding last month after Park District Commissioner Dan Ashta objected to the Pledge of Allegiance being placed on the park board agenda, saying that forcing board members to stand violated the right to free speech.
Mehta said he emailed park district officials early last month and told them about his plan to replace the funding in appreciation for Ashta’s “courageous protest” on behalf of “atheists everywhere.”
Anderson said she consulted all the park board members – except for Ashta – and decided that Mehta’s donation was not intended for general programming purposes and should be returned.
Mehta said he would probably look for a Morton Grove charity to send the money donated by his readers, who have previously helped pay medical bills for an Ohio pastor assaulted by a self-described “militant atheist.”
“I know everyone who gave money wanted to help the Park District make up for that injustice that happened,” Mehta said. “Unfortunately, the Park District would rather lose money than take the charity of atheists and their supporters.”