"Friendly Atheist" and Legion Post battle over contributions to Park District

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"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?

 You can read his posts HERE and HERE.

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.

Posted in the burner | 128 comments
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What a very well written article - worth a mention for a Pulitzer!!

This kind of crap is why I am strongly considering dropping my membership. I am not a member so some one can refuse to fund a needed program over a snit. I don't share the most popular Neanderthal opinions of the American Legion, but feel an organization that pro-ports to speak for all veterans should be darn sure that all veterans agree with it. Often I find myself disagreeing with "official" American Legion stands. As to how the legion spends its money, the only thing I will say is that some part of that money is my money. I don't want my money used to harm children to prove political points. For the record, I stand and I say the words and I mean them, but that is what I fought for, but I also fought for this other individual to have the right to not stand.

Unless you are in that post, it wasn't your money, it was that Post's money.  In fact, if your Post wants to hold a meeting and then pass a resolution to send the money to this Park District, there is nothing stopping you from doing so.  The American Legion choses it's positions by resolution, which is exactly what this post did.  They didn't feel that supporting this endeavor was worthwhile.  If you do however, i can even help you draft a resolution that you can submit to your post.  If you disagree with an official position of The American Legion, you can change that position by passing a resolution at the Post, then at the State, then at the National Convention.  It's not me or the National Commander or any other person making the positions, it is the membership.  There's a position TAL is pushing right now that I don't approve of as well, that doesn't mean I quit and walk away.  I just disagree with it, and I try to explain to others why I think it is foolish.  But since it is the official position, it is what it is.  

Thank you for again stating as clearly as I thought the article author had. for those still confused re read article and this reply thank you again.

Eat a dick, David.

Yes we have all heard the words, but please don't use that language now. We are all grownups, or at least I like to think so, we do not need to resort to profanity to get our point across. Use your education and please pick better words for showing a dislike or like for a column.

Herb, your pathetic comment should NOT have been posted here. But, it DOES show the intelligence level of the submitter.

Agreed and well said.


Here is what I sent to the American Legion after I read this article.
I believe it is the American Legion's prerogative to contribute financial support to those they feel merits it. But to extort a desired response of standing for the Pledge of allegience as a prerequisite for that contribution is a rather controlling and stupid method. Certainly, if the person does or does NOT perform what ever gesture you deem appropriately patriotic does not mean that he or she actually believe in whatever that gesture is meant to imply.
So is this a form of attempted mind control? Is this the NEW LEGIONAIRE'S DISEASE?

I am a 24 year veteran of the USMC who has served in VietNam and I believe that to say I fought for our Nation's people to believe and speak freely (whether or not I agree with what they might say) means that I could have and would have given my LIFE for that right. How petty then it is for the American Legion to withhold their contribution (which would benefit many people INCLUDING THOSE WHOSE BELIEFS MIGHT BE SIMILAR TO THOSE OF THE AMERICAN LEGION) because of one person who does not believe as does the Legion.

I will not renew my membership in the American Legion.

As far as I know, anytime that you are about to take your position in any government be it local, state or nation, you have to say an oath of office. I do agree that the Parks person should at least stand for the Pledge.
When I was teaching after serving my Country for six years active duty, I always asked my students to at least stand. In the Great Central Valley of California, there are many kids that their parents are from South of the Border and migrate during the harvest season. Many of those kids are not Americans. I got them to stand by saying that I would not disrespect the Mexican Flag, I would at least stand when it was appropriate to do so. I do not agree with the Parks person, but he should at least stand if nothing else to respect those that gave the ultimate sacrifice so that he can do almost anything he wants to.

I really appreciate your method of introducing repect for our flag. I think of the many countries that are
ready to jail or shoot dissenters. It takes so little effort to give a polite jesture of standing for our country's symbol in silent respect for our own country and what the rest of the world knows (and wishes they had) we stand for?

I really appreciate your method of introducing repect for our flag. I think of the many countries that are
ready to jail or shoot dissenters. It takes so little effort to give a polite jesture of standing for our country's symbol in silent respect for our own country and what the rest of the world knows (and wishes they had) we stand for?

I think I won't renew either. Our leaders are too rightwing and think they must protect us from what they perceive is wrong. Us vets can think for ourselves; we are not children anymore. Our leaders and many other vets still suffer from the intense brainwashing received in the public schools to believe our flag is a sacred object. A flag is a propaganda tool designed to encourage loyalty to the nation for which it stands.
However, once it encroaches on someone's substantive rights by requiring visible support in reference to a specific religion, the radical rightwing evangelicals (and their stooges) quickly display their memory of Pavlov's Bell by showing their ignorance of true civil rights in a democracy. The Legion Post leaders are so callous as to punish children for what post leaders and others foolishly believe is an insult to vets and the USA, when the true objection is forcing a specific religion onto others of different beliefs. Thank you, JJSEMPERFI!

Really, Mr. Garcia? Are you responding to the same article I read? There was nothing in there even remotely referring to religion, right wing, evangelicals, "stooges" (the use of which proves that you're not above propaganda-slinging and left-wing bigotry of your own), pink bunnies, leprechauns, or fairy dust. You defend blatant disrespect as constitutionally protected then openly attack political and religious expression--both EXPRESSLY protected in the Constitution you tout as an excuse for boorish behavior, but NOT an issue in this situation--as ignorant Pavlovian operant conditioning in the very same paragraph.
Showing respect to the flag as a symbol of the sacrifices you and I have made is just that--showing respect. It has no religious or "right-wing" roots. The flag itself is not sacred. It is simply a symbol, the vehicle through which we show our respect. We aren't honoring the fabric and thread; we're honoring the sacred principles, freedom, and spilled blood that it represents. If you bothered to read the whole article, the money is still going to the community, just not the parks department, and children won't lose sleep over a park budget. On the other hand, If you spent your spare time raising money to support an organization only to have the director give you the figurative finger, would you still give him the check or would you find another way to channel the money to the intended recipients? You and I both know the answer to that one. Interestingly, your rant attacks patriotic symbolism but then you end with "Semper Fi", another form of equally patriotic symbolism but apparently Garcia-approved by some twisted and confused logic.

I believe what JJ is saying, This is petty. It should not make a difference wether he stands or sits and it should not have anything to do with donations to the Park....This man wants to disrespect our Nation by not standing has no right to use this nations monetary system in which says "In God We Trust. Belief in "A God" doesn't say which God. A religeon is ones beliefs and what he will fight for. Atheistism is in its self a religion. It does not necessary mean he has to disrespect our country by not standing up during the pledge. Many people go to ball games, stand up for the National Anthem" but don't sing the song. Why don't they stay sitting?? Standing up shows respect for our country and flag. The American Legion should not be petty over donations because of one who shows disrepect. If the park was abusing the funds our using them for things that were not Park related, that would be a different story.

Spoken like a true Jar head. Is it not your patriotic duty to show your love for your country? Does it not stand to reason that an organization of any kind would bend there knee to another organization that is supporting there cause? Plain and simple the man was showing disrespect despite his views. In my book there’s no excuse for ignorance .

JJSemperFi, I would talk to the post about how they arrived at their decision to donate their money elsewhere before making a hasty decision about leaving the Legion. Are you active in your post? If so, you know that decisions for post funds are not spiteful or to punish anyone, but they do need to be compatible with the "four pillars." That's part of the mission. Please think again and continue to help your fellow veterans and children & youth nationwide by being a member.

well, if you have no convictions about anything then you dropping your is no big deal and you sure won't be missed. One person wants to suspend to saying of the pledge for EVERYONE not just for those who don't want to repeat said pledge.

The Legion doesn't support a park district who refuses to let ANYONE say the pledge

you claim that all persons should be allowed to speak freely but this member of the park district doesn't want ANYONE, period, to say the pledge thereby denying anyone their constitutional rights

Not sure which branch you served, David, but mine was U.S. Army. I too gave up part of my life to serve my country, and the little atheist jerk who thinks Mr. Ashton should NOT show respect to the people who SERVED our country is way off base. In fact, this country was FOUNDED on Judeo-Christian values and a core value for our country. You should feel the same with our veterans. Shame on you for not supporting that opinion.

Our country was not founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Most of the founding fathers were deists. The original pledge went thus:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Under God was not added until 1948.

Bill, you and all the believers, are not thinking straight. This country was founded on "Judeo-Christian values"-What values? You forgotten history? Judeo-Christian values-let's see: ROBBING, RAPING, AND KILLING the natives of this land all in the name of 'God". Hmmm! More people are becoming non-believers, cause this "God thing doesn't work anymore. If everyone keeps their beliefs to themselves, this world would be a better place. Religions are loosing grounds in this modern age. What we need to do is teach conciousness to the kids and every unrealistic minds to use our evolutionary senses to see clearly. The ones who claim or are religious seems more violent here. WoW! Is this "God" whom they are fighting for is so weak, that (HE) can't defend himself and need these poor unreliable souls to defend Him? If your "God" is so powerful let him be the judge, not you. If you or other people believe in this "God", then humble youself and don't utter words to people who don't believe. It's just going to get worse if it continues. Defending this country is one thing and I agree we all should show respect. When the pledge of legion to the flag comes on, I stand and always replace the part of One Nation under "GOD" to One Nation under humanity-isn't what this nation all about? It's human of all backgrounds making the call, including wars, justice, and peace. This nation or any nations should never use "God" to justify their means, if that is so, then this "God" is as guilty as every person who commits a crime. What happens to "free will"? Everything that happens today is the cause of humans. If anyone gets mad at what I posted here, it's mabe you don't understand or you can't recognize reality. Most of you don't know what the word believe means. Believe-to accept without proof. Religions love to use the word "believe" to trap the weakest minds. Even people with doctorate or higher education gets trap. For all believers, don't get mad, just pray. For some Atheist, at least show respect. I, as a non-believer in anything, just respect the way things are. I also respect people of all religions or beliefs but I will not honor or recognize them as real core values of humanity. So long people.

So quit then, they won't miss you I'm sure!!!!

Go ahead drop your membership. We will operate without you.

Most sensible statement on the issue thus far

You said "For the record, I stand and I say the words and I mean them, but that is what I fought for, but I also fought for this other individual to have the right to not stand. "
You did not fight for anyone's right, you fought for the corporation so that they could have what ever resource that they wanted. In the past 50 years the executive branch of the US government has created more terror, death and destruction than any entity on earth. That is what you fought for. Did you fight to ward off an attack on this country? When, during the past 50 years was the US attacked? I challenge anyone to refute my facts.

Have you ever heard of "the Twin Towers" during 9/11? Those radicals don't have uniformed troop but it was an attack nonetheless..
Commander, Jubail Memorial Division
China Post 1
The American Legion

First, if you don't like what happens in the Legion either become an agent of change, or, withdraw your membership. Second, the word is "purports", not "pro-ports" as you have so incorrectly used. Image is everything when you post on a high visibility medium, my man. I suggest proof-reading or using some sort of spell-check, but ignorance is bliss, I suppose. Good luck to you.

Wow! The spelling police is out in force. Perhaps the punctuation police should be following you around? I suggest taking your own advice.

If you are a member then you served during a time of conflict. Thank you for serving. I see this issue as a matter of respect regardless of how some try to twist it into their own agenda.

Simple enough. Not about who is "right" either. Not standing is not harmful. Good grief people, we have 16M+ children who go hungry, and we have members looking for UnAmericans? Lock/load? Really? I served 45-years for the privilege of being ok with any/all beliefs or even non-belief. No threat to us as big as failing our children!!

I stand in full agreement with Legion Post 134 in withholding funds. As a veteran I believe that all Americans be proud to stand and repeat the pledge. It has nothing to do with religion or the 1st amendment. It is out of respect for which this country stands for.

This is why I am in the Legion. It gets frustrating to read all of these stories. Our foundation has crumbled and it makes me sad.


As a Post Commander myself, I fully support Commander Lambert and the Morton Grove Post to withhold financial support to the MG park district. One thing missing from your blog post is the word "respect." Out of "respect," anyone visiting a foreign country would stand when their national anthem is played or their pledge is recited even though the person is not of that county. In my view, Mr. Ashta shows no respect for our flag, no respect for our country, no respect of the men and women that have given their blood and no respect for our constitutional rights.

Ooh Rahh

Unless you are a member of this specific Post, they are not in receipt of any of your money. If you are, then you should attend the next regular meeting and voice your concerns with the Commander on how he handled this situation. I am continually amazed at how little the citizenry in these communities are unaware of all the good things that the Legioncontributes. Quite often, only the polarizing issues are communicated and that is partly the fault of local, and by extension, the national media. Good news does not sell nearly as much as controversy and heartache. The veterans who have lost their lives would be saddened and aghast by much that the 1st amendment has allowed.

The American Legion is dead wrong on this one. The Pledge was modified from its original language in the 1950's as part of our McCarthy era battle with heathen communism. "Under God" was added to set the USA apart from the Atheistic Soviet Union. The debate about the constitutional standing of the currently worded Pledge will be a long and heated one and I side on removing the words "Under God." But no matter how or when that plays out no one can be forced to recite the Pledge or to stand and acknowledge it while it contains that unconstitutional phrase. So please allow people the freedom all of us veterans (past, current, and future) fought for and allow them to express themselves as they have a constitutional right to do. I would also rather see the American Legion spending our dues and other funds on helping the many homeless and jobless veterans out there. We don’t need to build any more monuments to ourselves.

Why put it on the Post? If this dude thinks more about others (like the receivers of the money and what it does for the community) why is it so freaking hard to stand up? I know quite a few vets who would love the opportunity to stand up for the flag or the Pledge but they can't since they are in a wheel chair because of their service and sacrifice for this country. Don't think they lost their limbs or lives so some "friendly atheist" can show disrespect for their loss.

Not standing for the Pledge because, of religious objection is not disrespect to Vets it is exercising a freedom that those Vets fought for. Attempting to coerce the "friendly atheist" to stand for the pledge goes against the constitution that those Vets took an oath to defend.

well stated from a Korean war vet circa 1953.

I agree with Sonny Daigle's comments. When I recite the pledge I do not repeat the words "under God" but remain silent. The rest of the pledge I am quite comfortable repeating. For the record, I am an Agnostic. For those who don't know the difference between an Atheist & an Agnostic, an Agnostic believes there is not enough proof to either prove or disprove the existence of a God. My own opinion, subject to change, is that ALL religions are man made & what they worship as God, are advanced intelligent beings who have visited us from somewhere else in the Cosmos. This does not prove the existence or non-existence of "God". If it gives someone comfort to believe in their version of God, why try to change their beliefs? For those who believe in their concept of God, please don't try to jam your views down the throats of those who do not share your beliefs, even though I know you are usually well meaning in your attempts to "save" us.

He is willing to show respect to other countries religions and beliefs but when it comes to show respect for the country that lets him be free it's a different story. If you don't love it LEAVE it.

“The U.S. was built on controversy, inclusion and the principles of acceptance. You can make room at the table or you can get out.” Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jim Pillsbury

I agree with the Post for discontinuing the flow of money for the disrespect shown. What if the so called friendly atheist thought it was all right to spit on the flag during a ceremony and demanded it was his right to free speech. If more patriotic Americans would take a stand with where there money goes, the respect would come even if it was to keep the money flowing or making a profit if it was a business.

If they don't support us, or our efforts, they don't deserve our support.

Well said, Bruce
Navy Vietnam Veteran
Post Trustee

you stand for the pledge of allegiance out of respect for the country that provided you with the freedom of speech along with many other freedoms that you didn't have or didn't know they existed.

Did you know that we have the freedom to not stand or was that one you didn't know existed?

post 146 past commander i am in full support of post 134


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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.