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Niles Township Food Pantry accepts check from controversial atheists’ group

<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>
Skokie Monday 03.04.13. Niles Township Supervisor Lee Tamraz is shown during a board meeting on Monday, March 4, 2013, in Skokie. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Morton Grove Park Commissioner Dan Ashta defends his decision to not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, saying the First Amendment also affords freedom to not talk.  |  Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media

Trustees of the Niles Township Food Pantry Foundation said they have accepted a $3,000 check from a controversial group of atheists.

The Morton Grove Park District and Morton Grove Public Library declined the money due to perceived political or social ramifications, but the foundation’s secretary Charles Levy said the check was not flagged for discussion.

“It went through like any other donation,” Levy said on Jan. 7. “It was labeled as a contribution to the food pantry, so there was no reason to treat it differently. We deposited it a few days ago.”

The money was originally collected on gofundme.com by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, of Naperville, who wanted to replace the $2,600 in donations that American Legion Post 134 vowed to withhold until Park Commissioner Dan Ashta stands for the Pledge of Allegiance or is unseated.

Mehta said he wanted to thank Ashta for protecting the First Amendment and the ability to advocate for a separation of church and state. However, the Park Board returned the check and said it did not want to be embroiled in a political or religious dispute.

Mehta then sent a check to the Morton Grove Library, but its board of trustees also declined to take the money. Some trustees cited concerns over accepting money originally intended for the park district. Other library trustees referenced a reader comment on the Friendly Atheist Facebook page, which says “[expletive] God,” and said they didn’t want money from a hate group.

Cathy Peters was the most vocal library trustee who opposed the money, and she was unsettled to learn that the food pantry accepted the money.

“Everyone has to follow their conscience,” Peters said. “Our board followed ours and their board followed theirs.”

Mehta said he still resents being called a hate group, but is glad the money will finally help residents in the park district’s taxing district.

“I’m sure some of the same people who get food from the pantry also go to free events at the park district or send their kids there for daycare,” Mehta said. “That $2,600 hole has to be filled by cutting somewhere else within the organization.”

Ironically, however, Mehta said the same note that accompanied his check to the library was also enclosed in the donation to the food pantry’s foundation.

The note read “This is a donation on behalf of atheists everywhere” with the web address of the fundraising site dedicated to Ashta’s pledge boycott, Mehta said. The check was also made from a bank account registered to friendlyatheist.com, not from Mehta’s personal account.

Mehta said when he first called the food pantry, identified who he was and stated his intention, he was allegedly instructed to send a check to the Greater Chicago Food Depository with “Niles Township Food Pantry” in the subject line.

“I asked the guy if he tells other people to do this,” Mehta said. “When he said ‘no,’ I told him I’ll donate directly like everyone else. That was the extent of my communication with the food pantry.”

Regardless of why the food pantry accepted the same donation library trustees rejected, Mehta praised Levy for not interrupting the process.

“I’m glad he let protocol stand,” Mehta said. “When you’re in the business of helping people and someone gives you money, you don’t step on the toes of your staff and nit-pick where the money came from.”

Niles Township Supervisor Lee Tamraz also sits on the food pantry’s foundation board and serves as president. Tamraz is also a member of American Legion Post 134 and previously said he wanted to talk about the donation at a special meeting.

Tamraz said the money is needed, but he was cautious about alienating regular food pantry supporters.

No special meeting was called, as Tamraz said on Jan. 6 that any decision to flag donations lies with the staff. That’s where Levy as secretary took the reins and said the check was not unordinary.

Joseph Lampert, the commander of American Legion Post 134 and the representative who originally confronted Ashta, was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Throughout the nearly three-month saga, Mehta said he did finally speak with Ashta only to acknowledge each other’s initiative.

“He never said he thought what I was doing was good or bad, but he wanted me to know he appreciated the notion,” Mehta said. “After all this, I hope its over. I stand by my support of Ashta’s awesome display of solidarity. I hope he keeps sitting down and I hope nobody gets mad at the food pantry.”

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