Your money’s no good here

A small town protects itself against an atheist plot

Your money’s no good here
Hemant Mehta
Hemant Mehta
What in the name of Joe McCarthy is going on up north? In case you didn’t read about it, here’s what’s happened so far. In October, American Legion Post 134 in the Cook County town of Morton Grove withdrew its annual $2,600 donation to the local park district because one of its commissioners – an attorney who specializes in constitutional law – does not stand during its pre-meeting Pledge of Allegiance. Hemant Mehta, a Naperville schoolteacher who also hosts a blog site devoted to atheist issues, asked his readers to help make up the loss to the park district as a gesture of support for the commissioner’s exercise of his constitutional right. They raised more than $3,000, which Mehta sent to the district as a donation, no strings attached.

The park district returned the check with a note that said in part, “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.”

Mehta then sent the money to the Morton Grove Public Library. “The money was meant to support the people in the community, after all,” he later said, “and if the park district didn’t want it, then the library seemed deserving of the donation.” Deserving perhaps, but grateful, no. The library trustees rejected the gift too, by a vote of 5-2.

An undaunted Mehta then resolved to give the three grand to the local food pantry. No news yet about whether the pantry might accept the gift, although a township supervisor on the pantry’s board of trustees told reporters he was worried about alienating supporters of the food pantry if it took money from atheists.

Farcical certainly, but funny, no. Remember that this whole kerfuffle started over the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge is a silly bit of political theater that doesn’t affirm loyalty but conformity, which is the actual reason public bodies insist on it – and the best reason for opposing its imposition. But if public bodies in a secular republic insist on the ritual, the pledge should read, “one nation, under the Constitution,” not one nation under God.

Mehta’s donors, it should be remembered, attached no strings on their gift. The money was to be spent on whatever the park board thought would be useful. As Mehta put it, “It’s not like we make you bow at our feet and renounce Jesus before signing the check.” But the American Legion apparently expects elected officials to bow down, figuratively speaking, by standing in public and taking an oath that the Morton Grove American Legion post apparently doesn’t even believe in, at least the “liberty for all” part.

Might in fact accepting a gift from Mehta’s donors be interpreted as sympathy for a “particular political or religious cause”? Mehta’s cause is freedom of religion in particular and freedom of expression in general, which I would have thought were unobjectionable even in the suburbs, where folks can get pretty objectionable, which you would know if you ever sat in on a local zoning meeting. And of course, park boards and library boards accept money from atheists all the time in the form of taxes and fees.

Some library trustees were unhappy with things a commenter (not Mehta) had written on Mehta’s site’s Facebook page, things which in their opinion made the blog a “hate group.” She did not come to that novel conclusion because of anything Mehta said, but because one anonymous commenter on his website said something vulgarly dismissive of God, which Mehta, who usually cleans his site of such bile, failed to remove. (Atheism has its fundamentalist fringe too.) Mehta gets more than a thousand comments every day and admits to not being able to police every one. As he later wrote, “For them to blame random stranger commenters as a reflection on me, or the donors who gave that money, shows that they know nothing about the Internet.” Sort of like judging the quality of a town’s public servants because one religious bigot sits on a library board.

In the end, there is no real issue, only a disagreement. Atheists and believers don’t agree about God. To which I must ask, so what? Disagreeing with people, if I may borrow an expression, is not a sin.

One last thing: After the library turned down their money, Mehta told his readers, “The Morton Grove Public Library does really have a wish list of things they need. If you can find it in your heart and wallet to donate to the library so they can get all the things they need, I think that would be a really nice gesture.”

It’s nice that someone in this episode is capable of Christian charity.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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