After Hurricane Irma devastated parts of Florida, one of the groups that was assisting in recovery efforts was Boca Helping Hands, whose website says they provide “food, medical and financial assistance to meet basic human needs as well as education, job training, and guidance to create self-sufficiency.”
Along with the check was a note explaining where the donation came from and why it was made:
… Nonbelief Relief is a humanitarian adjunct of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, created by its board as a separate charity to ameliorate instances of human suffering and injustice on a global scale, whether the result of natural disasters, human actions [or] adherence to religious dogma…
We think it is important that it be known that secularists are just as charitable, if not more charitable than the religious, but have simply lacked the infrastructure to give as a united group under the banner of freethought.
Most atheists and freethinkers work to make a heaven on this planet, and therefore we greatly appreciate your humanitarian actions. Good luck with your work.
That explanation looked like it was a deal-breaker for the non-profit, since they returned the letter and check.
“Boca Helping Hands has been participating with a number of local partners to provide relief to the victims of the hurricane,” Boca Raton Helping Hand’s [Interim] Executive Director tersely replied. “However, we are not currently soliciting contributions for any further relief efforts.“
Really? Not at all? Because the contribution page on the group’s website is still up and Florida’s not even close to fully recovering from the disaster. Generosity from atheists, it seemed, went against the “All contributions are welcome” pledge on the group’s website.
FFRF couldn’t believe it either. They claimed the group was “more intent on scoring points rather than helping people in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.”
“Our charity is called Nonbelief Relief. But we find it beyond belief that a charitable organization would put its biases above the needs of its recipients,” says [FFRF Co-President and Nonbelief Relief administrator Annie Laurie] Gaylor.
This afternoon, I called Boca Helping Hands to get a better explanation for why the group rejected the money.
I spoke with Interim Executive Director Greg Hazle, who told me anti-atheist sentiment had nothing to do with the rejection. His concern was that people were wrongly assuming his organization was directly helping with relief efforts when that’s not the case at all. They’re working with a few other groups, sure, but hurricane relief isn’t what they do. And Hazle didn’t want to accept any money from any group under what he called “false pretenses.” FFRF, he added, wasn’t the only organization whose money was returned.
Why didn’t he make that clear in his response to FFRF? He told me he thought he did, saying, “We take responsibility if our communication was not clear, but at no point did we say we do not accept secular donations. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
If atheists want to donate to his organization, that’s fine. But Hazle wants to make sure they’re donating for the right reasons, and FFRF’s letter suggested a shared goal that didn’t align with what Boca Helping Hands actually does. Hazle was sorry that his intentions were “misinterpreted,” but he made clear the atheism of FFRF and its donors wasn’t a concern for anybody.
I’m glad to hear the clarification since there have, in fact, been several times when generosity from atheists really was rejected by ostensibly secular charities.
In 2010, the Mississippi chapter of the ACLU (!) rejected a $20,000 donation from the American Humanist Association to hold an LGBT-inclusive prom because “the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist.'” (The ACLU later apologized.)
In 2011, the American Cancer Society said no to a $500,000 donation from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation for their Relay For Life efforts. (Atheists later partnered with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which sponsors “Light the Night” walks, to raise more than $250,000.)
In 2013, members of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition volunteered to deliver meals to the hungry on Thanksgiving with the (religious) Kansas City Rescue Mission, but their generosity was turned away because the Mission said the atheists wouldn’t be a “good fit.” (Another Christian ministry, however, accepted the atheists’ help after hearing about the controversy.)
Also in 2013, readers of this site raised over $3,000 to donate to a local park district in Illinois. The district’s board of directors rejected the money. I then tried giving it to the Morton Grove Public Library. Not only did the library reject it, one board member referred to readers of this site as a “hate group.” (The money was eventually accepted by the Niles Township Food Pantry, which serves that same community.)
And just last year, an atheist’s $100 donation to the Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Oklahoma, on behalf of the Muskogee Atheist Community, was rejected because the religious school didn’t want to acknowledge the people who gave it to them the same way they do all other donations. The atheist, Matt Wilbourn, then raised another $25,000 for the school — both out of spite and out of a desire to help those kids — only to have that money rejected as well. (He later gave it all to Camp Quest Oklahoma so that kids could still benefit.)
In all of those examples, donations from atheists were rejected for no good reason. It’s not like the money came with the condition that recipients had to denounce God.
That doesn’t appear to be the situation in this case. Call it miscommunication if you want, but it’s not anti-atheist animus.
(Image via Shutterstock. I published a version of this post literally two minutes before Hazle called me. Because it was factually incorrect on the basis of what he said, I took the older version down. My apologies for jumping the gun.)