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$3K 'Gift From Atheists Everywhere' Rejected by Illinois Park District to Avoid First Amendment Controversy

Funds were previously lost after atheist park commissioner refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance earlier this year

The park department of Morton Grove, Illinois has rejected a donation from an atheist teacher and blogger, saying that it would prefer to avoid becoming involved in any First Amendment dispute or controversy. The donation had initially been sent to compensate for lost funds after a veterans' group pulled donations to the department after one of its commissioners refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance back in early November.

Hemant Mehta, a 30-year-old teacher in Naperville, Ill. and the atheist blogger behind the popular website "Friendly Atheist," wrote in a recent blog post that his donation of $3,406 to the Morton Grove Park District was rejected. Mehta provided a copy of an email received by the district's Executive Director Tracey Anderson explaining why the department had chosen to reject Mehta's donation, which was reportedly raised by atheists and Christian supporters after Mehta' reported on the park department's defunding in November.

In the email, Anderson said that her department 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."

Anderson elaborated to The Chicago Tribune, saying that when Mehta initially emailed the department in November expressing his intentions to send them a donation, she thought it would be for general programming purposes for the department. After receiving the donation, Anderson then met with park board members and they collectively determined that it would be best to turn down Mehta's donation to avoid any controversy.

Anderson added that Mehta's check reportedly included a note that said the purpose of the donation was to support the park commissioner, Dan Ashta, who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance back in November and that the $3,000 donation was a gift from "atheists everywhere."

The Morton Grove Parks Department initially lost $2,600 in its funding back in November when one of its main contributors, the local chapter of the national American Legion veterans group, decided to pull its funding after learning one of the park district's commissioners, atheist Dan Ashta, refused to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance due to its reference to "One Nation, Under God." Joseph Lampert, commander of the Morton Grove Post 134 chapter of the American Legion, said at a board meeting in late October that his group would be cutting funds to the Parks Department because they found Ashta's actions to be disrespectful to veterans.

"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 told Ashta at the board meeting. "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."

Ashta has continued to refuse to stand for the Pledge in spite of the American Legion's response, saying that he believes it is in his constitutional rights to sit during the oath. "No one has told me that my legal interpretation is wrong and I've pledged my allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. I see no reason to change my stance," he said in November, according to the local Morton Grove Champion.

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