A major veterans' organization in Illinois has halted funding to a local park district after one of the park's atheist commissioners refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during board meetings, because the pledge includes the verse "One Nation, Under God."
Members of the Morton Grove Post 134 chapter of the American Legion, a nationwide veterans' association, recently announced that it would halt funding to the Morton Grove Park District because one of the park district's commissioners, Dan Ashta, refused to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings because he was an atheist. The Legion's chapter said that although it supports Ashta's right to not stand for the pledge, it ultimately does not accept it.
"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," Joseph Lampert, Commander of Post 134, told Ashta at a board meeting two weeks ago. "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," he added. "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."
Lampert added to the Chicago Tribune that the Legion is not expecting Ashta to say the pledge or put his hand over his heart, but they would like to see him stand out of respect to veterans who fought for his ability to say the Pledge of Allegiance freely. "Nowhere did we say that he has to recite the pledge or put his hand over his heart. We would just like to see him stand out of respect," Lampert said.
According to the Morton Grove Champion, the American Legion's 134 chapter has donated over $2,000 to the park district for various holiday events such as an Easter Extravaganza and Fourth of July fireworks.
Ashta, an attorney who was elected to his position as parks commissioner in April, told the Chicago Tribune that he has the constitutional right to remain silent, and therefore he would be violating the principles behind law and the constitution if he unwillingly stood to say the pledge. "I feel like I'd be disrespecting America, the Constitution, the rule of law - everything people have sacrificed to live in a free society," he said.
Hemant Mehta, a 30-year-old Naperville teacher and blogger behind the well-known website "The Friendly Atheist," has organized his own fundraising campaign in support of Ashta and the Morton Grove Park District.
"As atheists (and allies) who don't believe there's a connection between standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance and loving our country, we're appalled by this childish display of 'true patriotism.' Ashta took a respectable stand and the Morton Grove Park District shouldn't be penalized for his actions," Mehta wrote on the GoFund page. So far, Mehta has managed to raise $2,727 out of his $2,600 goal.
Others, including local resident Coursey Winkler, whose mother serves on the park board, are calling for Ashta's resignation. "He needs to put his pride aside. He is now hurting the park and village, and as an elected official he is the voice of the people," Winkler told the Morton Grove Champion. "At this time, I do not believe he is speaking for the people. If he is hurting the park he should resign."