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Atheist teacher supports board member’s decision to boycott pledge

<p>Hemant Mehta runs <a href="http://friendlyatheist.com" target="_blank">friendlyatheist.com</a> and he's fundraising $2,600 to replace the money American Legion Post 134 is pulling from the Morton Grove Park District out of protest. | Photo courtesy of Hemant Mehta</p>

Hemant Mehta runs friendlyatheist.com and he's fundraising $2,600 to replace the money American Legion Post 134 is pulling from the Morton Grove Park District out of protest. | Photo courtesy of Hemant Mehta

A high school teacher from Naperville is fundraising $2,600 to replace the annual sponsorships that American Legion Post 134 is withholding from the Morton Grove Park District.

Post Cmdr. Joseph Lampert told the park board Oct. 24 that no money will be provided until all members of the board, specifically Commissioner Dan Ashta, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance out of respect for veterans and fallen servicemen.

Ashta maintains that he’s defending the public’s 1st Amendment right to not participate for whatever political, religious or physical reason a person might have.

A media storm erupted after the confrontation and Hemant Mehta of Naperville found several of those stories while browsing the web for topics he could blog about on his website, friendlyatheist.com.

“It’s not like Mr. Ashta is saying, ‘I’m an atheist and I oppose the under God portion of the pledge,’” Mehta said. “I would say that though, and he’s showing respect for my right to do it even though he might not agree with me.”

Along the same line, Mehta said Ashta is admirable for not challenging people who do stand for the pledge.

“This guy is not unpatriotic; he’s quite the opposite,” Mehta said. “He is an elected official chosen by citizens in his community, and I doubt that every single person in Morton Grove is able-bodied, Christian and completely satisfied with their government. He’s reminding everyone that government is open to all. That’s about as patriotic as it gets.”

Mehta posted a blog Oct. 30 praising Ashta, and also asking his readers for donations to replace the Legion’s $2,600. Within three days, $2,000 was donated to Mehta’s “We support Dan Ashta’s Pledge Protest” account on gofundme.com.

Other bloggers from throughout the country, however, started labeling Ashta as an aggressive atheist. Mehta and Ashta don’t know each other, so Ashta couldn’t understand why some of his hate mail referred to him as an insensitive atheist.

Ashta’s public response to the Legion did not include any personal religious viewpoints.

After learning of Mehta’s fundraising effort, Ashta said the 1st Amendment allows Hemant to express his desires to keep church and state separate.

Online forums have sparked many debates on the issue, but Lampert said all phone calls to the Legion and his cell phone have been positive.

“My phone number is listed in our newsletter, which we started putting on our website,” Lampert said. “Mostly it’s been other posts and veterans calling to support us.”

Lampert said the Legion stands by its decision.

The Legion’s financial boycott will end once all park commissioners stand for the pledge, Lampert said, and members said they are willing to wait until Ashta is voted out of office if that’s what it takes.

Ashta, whose term expires in 2019, said none of the other commissioners have asked him to step down, nor had he thought about resigning as a result of the public conflict.

“I’m not embarrassed and I don’t think Morton Grove should be embarrassed,” Ashta said. “Fostering debate is American. I don’t think discussing this topic has hurt the park district.”

The next park board meeting is Nov. 21. Ashta said he hasn’t decided what to do when the pledge is called for on that day.

Many of the emails Ashta has received have been unpleasant, but he claims the responses have been half positive and half negative.

“I’ve received a significant amount of emails from people all over, but not an amount beyond my capability to respond,” Ashta said. “I’ve spent a lot of time replying to people who didn’t excessively swear at me.”

Ashta said he’s not received any death or physical threats.

Some of the responses asked Ashta to at least stand out of respect, even if he doesn’t speak the words.

“People have said standing up shows respect and sitting down is disrespectful,” Ashta said. “Signs of respect and disrespect are messages, and my interpretation is that conduct is protected under the 1st Amendment.”

Ashta said he has not asked for the pledge to be taken off future agendas because he doesn’t want to stop people who do want to say it.

“I’ve had a lot of people giving me their opinions, which is fine, but nobody has told me that my legal interpretation is wrong,” Ashta said. “Nobody has constructed a different constitutional interpretation. Government is and should be a completely open forum for everyone.”

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