"Friendly Atheist" and Legion Post battle over contributions to Park District
When I deployed to Afghanistan and Bosnia as an infantryman, in dealing with different cultures my guiding star was to remember that I was acting as a sort of Ambassador for my country. As such, I had to show respect for the culture, whatever my personal opinions on certain things. In both warzones I participated in various public events, gatherings and discussions with the locals. On some of those occasions the discussions had a religious component, either specifically stated, or latently present. I drank innumerable cups of sugary tea with Imam’s, local religious leaders and people of religions other than my own. When a local leader would call upon Allah to guide us in our discussion, I simply bowed my head and mirrored my own invocation that peace and progress would come from the meeting. When I rode along in the Afghan National Army vehicles emblazoned with the flag of their country, I respected their love of country and culture. It never really bothered me. When I went to Senegal last year a village wise man and religious leader asked if he could pray over us. I have no idea what religion he was, although our interpreter struggled to explain the tenets which seemed to have an Anamist bent to it. Again, I bowed my head and internally asked for blessings to come upon these West Africans.
To me, that seemed the respectful thing to do. I certainly had the constitutional right to walk out, I just didn’t see a need to avail myself of it. I’m a bit of a liberal religiously I suppose. To each their own. If someone had called on the power of the Great Spaghetti Monster to smite our enemies, I would have kept my head bowed, and my opinions to myself.
Now, I bring that up only to let you know where I stand on such things. Because it does factor in to this debate. First, the background from the Chicago Tribune:
This fall, members of American Legion Post 134 [Illinois] announced that the group no longer would contribute financial and volunteer support for park programs until [Morton Grove, IL] Park District Commissioner Dan Ashta stands when the pledge is recited at the start of Park District board meetings.
Post commander Joseph Lampert said at the time that the veterans group did not expect Ashta to recite the pledge or place his hand over his heart. They did, however, expect him to stand out of respect.
Ashta, an attorney who focuses on constitutional law, said placing the pledge on the agenda forces meeting attendees to stand, which is an act of speech. His refusal to stand, he said, is a defense of the public's right to free speech.
Not standing is certainly Ashta’s right. And not donating resources is certainly a prerogative of an American Legion post. I want to cite to another article which more fully lays out the Legion posts position:
Post 134 Commander Joseph Lampert attended the Oct. 24 park board meeting to confront Commissioner Dan Ashta on his choice not to stand for the Pledge, and to announce the Legion’s decision.
“On behalf of our post, it is with some regret that we fully respect the right of individuals to not stand during the pledge of allegiance,” Lampert said. “All veterans have been willing to lose their lives for that right, and many have. With that being said, while we support that right, we do not accept it.
“Regrettably, we will be withholding funds from the park district until such time that everyone rises for the pledge,” Lampert continued. “We feel that it’s disrespectful to all veterans that have been willing to sacrifice their lives for this country and it is a great dishonor to all servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and died for this country.”
Now, some of you might note the story, and the incongruence with my opening statement, and ask “why did you start with a discussion of religious respect when this issue deals only with respect for the flag”? Well, because this has somehow morphed into a battle between “Christian activists” and atheists.
A blogger going by the name of “The Friendly Atheist” [pictured above] takes a dim view of the Legion withholding these resources. Among his statements include these:
…[An] American Legion group is punishing a public institution for not catering to their juvenile demands.
….Yeah! Our veterans died so you could have the freedom to express your beliefs! And if you express them, we’re gonna punish you! We love the Constitution, just not the First Amendment! [This portion he assures me is sarcasm]
…how petty do you have to be to punish the residents of Morton Grove because one of the park district’s board members doesn’t want the Pledge to be on the meeting’s agenda?
Now, since The American Legion post withdrew their $2,600 support for these events, “The Friendly Atheist” did what seemed the appropriate response to me, and raised the funds from within his circle of readers and supporters.. I’m certainly very fine with that. (As was the Post Commander, Joe Lambert who I talked with earlier today.) Here is a video that the blogger made:
Nonetheless, he apparently wanted to continue taking shots at the Legion post, despite the fact that he conceded in an email to me and on his blog that they were under no obligation to make any donations. [He also said that it appears to him that the Legion does in fact do some "wonderful things.] In addition to referring to Commander Lambert’s position as a “childish tirade” and a “hissy fit” he went on to accuse the Legion of being a “group of Christian activists who can’t see past their own privilege.”
Now, in an update yesterday in the Chicago Tribune we find that the Park District refused the money [note that “Mehta” is the “Friendly Atheist”]:
In an email to Mehta, Park District Executive Director Tracey Anderson said the Park District board "has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute."
The email also says Park District officials do not want to appear "sympathetic to," or show a perceived position for or against, "any particular political or religious cause."
"I'm a little shocked," said Mehta, 30, a Naperville resident and teacher who writes a blog called the Friendly Atheist.
"The weird thing is … 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.'"
Like I said, I spoke to Commander Lambert this morning, to clarify a few things. First, he never felt this had anything to do with religion in any way. In fact, the post is host to “people from all walks of life” some of whom are probably Atheists or practitioners of other faiths. When the decision was made to not submit the funds, it was not intended as some sort of salvo in a nascent religious war, but rather a representation that the Post believes that respect for veterans, and compliance with religious views and personal feelings can be met by a simple standing and respectful pose while others recite the pledge.
Second, he didn’t have a problem personally with the Atheists donating to the Park if that’s what they wanted to do. In fact, he even kind of chuckled at the thought that part of the donation would be to replace the $300 that the Legion had previous given for the town’s “Easter Extravaganza.” The irony of Atheists being a sponsor of Easter is rather humorous.
Third, the post doesn’t give $2,600 to the community a year; it has given over $17,000 this year alone. The $2,600 was only one small part of their charitable giving. The Legion Post there sponsors Boy Scout troops, American Legion Baseball teams, attendees at Boys State, the National Emergency Fund, the Operation Comfort Warriors and a host of other type things. Commander Lambert was eager to note that it’s not as if the money won’t end up going to the community, it just won’t go through the Park District chaired by a person who wouldn’t stand for the pledge.
I also emailed with the “Friendly Atheist” this morning, and he did seem to be “Friendly” despite how I feel about what appeared to me to be the hurling of rhetorical grenades with his statements on his blog listed above. His main argument was he feels that the Legion’s precondition for the funds was “ridiculous.” Um. Ok. I guess as I told him that ridiculousness is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not sure how you attack an organization for withholding what they are free to withhold and argue that there is some sort of constitutional issue in play though. I know of no constitutional imperative that says you must give your personal money to a specific entity like the parks people, excepting indirectly through taxes. It seems odd that never once does the Friendly Atheist in previous years appear to be appreciative of the donations in the past, it is only when they refrain from giving them that the Legion becomes a factor in his writing.
For my part, I just wish the Park District had taken their check. As far as I know currency knows no religious affiliation. (Well, except "In God We Trust" of course.) Apparently he is donating it to the library, which seems a worthwhile endeavor as well. But I am still flummoxed at any argument that a private organization is to be lambasted and ridiculed for spending their own charitable donations in a manner they deem fit. To me that is the essence of the First Amendment, the right to associate with whom one wishes.