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Morton Grove Park District returns donation to atheist blogger

Morton Grove Park Commissioner Dan Ashta defends his decision to not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, saying the First Amendment also affords freedom to not talk.  |  Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media
Morton Grove Park Commissioner Dan Ashta defends his decision to not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, saying the First Amendment also affords freedom to not talk. | Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media
The Morton Grove Park District returned a $3,000 donation from an atheist blogger this week who raised the money to replace $2,600 in lost funding from the local branch of the American Legion, which revoked its donations because a park board member refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. 
 
Hermant Mehta, an atheist activist who works as a math teacher in Naperville, said Monday he would send the returned money to the Morton Grove Public Library instead. 
 
“I thought they’d be grateful that some group of people wanted to give to our community regardless of the reason for it,” Mehta said. “The money was meant to benefit the community, and if the Park District doesn’t want it, I’m sure the library will.” 
 
Mehta contacted Park District Executive Director Tracey Anderson on Dec. 1 to find out why the check he sent in on Nov. 12 had not been cashed, and Anderson responded that the donation would not be accepted. 
 
In an email to Mehta, Anderson wrote, “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 said it was the first time he’d heard any opposition to the money from the Park District.
 
“I’m frustrated since there didn’t seem to be a problem a month ago when I asked them where to send the money,” Mehta said. 
 
In November, Mehta requested the Park District’s mailing address in an email while identifying himself as an atheist who was raising money to support the Park District. 
 
A reply sent by Anderson provided the address of where to send the check, and said, “once received for general programming support, we will issue you a receipt for your donation.” 
 
“If they had said early on they wouldn’t accept it, then fine, I wouldn’t have done the fundraising,” Mehta said. “Why couldn’t they tell me up front that they didn’t want to be involved in this?” 
 
Anderson couldn’t be reached Tuesday afternoon to provide further details on why the Park District didn’t accept the donation. 
 
Mehta began raising online donations earlier this fall to support the Park District after American Legion Post 134 withdrew funding because Morton Grove Park Commissioner Dan Ashta had refused to stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance. 
 
Joseph Lampert, commander of American Legion Post 134, told the Park Board in October that the $2,600 in donations would be withheld until all members of the board, specifically Ashta, stood for the Pledge of Allegiance out of respect for veterans and fallen servicemen. 
 
Ashta has said that while he appreciates what veterans have done for the U.S., choosing not to stand is his way of defending the public’s First Amendment right to free speech. 
 
Mehta, who runs the web site friendlyatheist.com, raised $3,088 to make up for the Park District’s loss in funding by soliciting donations online during a roughly two-week period. 
He has said he raised the money as a way of thanking Ashta for protecting the First Amendment. 
 
Mehta said he did not respond to Anderson’s email rejecting the donation because, he said, it was clear the issue was not open for debate. 
 
“What if the check wasn’t from atheists? What if it was Christians?” Mehta said. “I would hope they’d reject a check from them too but I doubt it.” 
 
A new check from friendlyatheist.com was mailed out to the Morton Grove Public Library today. Mehta said he called the library’s general number yesterday to ask if they accepted donations, and was told yes by the operator. 
 
“The money was meant to support the community, so if the Park District is rejecting it, it was only fair to have it still benefit the citizens of Morton Grove,” Mehta said. 
 
Morton Grove Public Library Board President Mark Albers said he wouldn’t be able to comment about what the Library Board would do with the check until it arrives in the mail. 
 
“If he wants to mail a check over, that’s something the library board would have to consider — whether they’d accept a check or not,” Albers said. “Until we get the check there’s not much we can say.”
 
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