Atheists say cancer volunteering thwarted

(RNS) The American Cancer Society has rejected an atheist group's bid to
field a national team to raise money for cancer research, and organizers
suspect it's because of the volunteers' godless beliefs.

Todd Stiefel, who channels tens of thousands of dollars to atheist
causes from his Raleigh, N.C.-based Stiefel Freethought Foundation, had
wanted to organize as many as 100 teams for the ACS' Relay for Life
under the banner of the Foundation Beyond Belief. Stiefel said his
family would match up to $250,000 raised by the national teams.

After getting an initial nod from the ACS, Stiefel said the
charitable group told him in August that it would not support a national
team or help keep a tally of donations raised by local relayers.

The American Cancer Society said a relay team sponsored by the
Foundation Beyond Belief didn't fit its new policy that organizes
national teams only from corporations, not nonprofit groups.

Devoting staff to a noncorporate national team program was "sapping
some energy and time" and not delivering the desired revenue to justify
the support, said Reuel Johnson, national vice president for the ACS'
Relay for Life.

This is the second time Stiefel has had trouble donating to a
prominent nonprofit group, which makes him wonder if atheist money is
tainted. Last March, the Mississippi branch of the ACLU turned down
$20,000, saying too many people "tremble in terror at the word

Stiefel's philanthropy includes a grant to Religion News Service to
support coverage of atheists and humanists.

Stiefel had applied for the national team model so the ACS could
help organize local teams under the banner of the Foundation Beyond
Belief and keep track of how much money the local teams had raised.

Stiefel appealed the rejection, arguing that the foundation is a
corporation, but was denied. An idea to start a youth affiliate program
was also rejected, he said.

"I know we're being treated differently than other nonprofits, but I
don't know why," Stiefel said. "My beef is if they eliminated the
noncorporate program, why would they not find any alternative way to
establish a national team or something that was equivalent, considering
the huge matching challenge?"

Johnson said the ACS is still willing to accept Stiefel's donation.
Even though the national noncorporate team program had ended, volunteers
and a designated liaison could help support and unify local Beyond
Belief teams.

The youth program, Johnson said, is designated for national youth
organizations like the Girl Scouts.

Greg Donaldson, national vice president of communications for the
ACS, said it is simply "not true" that the ACS would not help calculate
the fundraising tallies for the local teams, and said he's unsure what
the "real agenda is here."

"We're anxious and excited and willing to work with Mr. Stiefel and
any organization. ... Every conceivable organization type has worked
with us on Relay. That's why it's been so successful. It would be
suicide to conduct differentiated treatment with any organization."

The back-and-forth has been a hot topic in the atheist blogosphere.

Hemant Mehta, a Beyond Belief board member, blogged about the
situation on the Friendly Atheist blog on Sept. 8, which prompted a
small but vocal band of supporters to post comments on the Relay
Facebook page like "Cancer doesn't discriminate, why should ACS?"

The next day, Johnson posted an open letter and said ACS desired an
agreeable resolution. Last Wednesday (Sept. 28), Stiefel responded with
his own open letter on Friendly Atheist.

"I was trying hard to do something wonderful," he wrote. "Instead,
my efforts have been frustrated by inequity. ... It is unfortunate that
we must move on, but we will find another group and save lives with a
charity that shows appreciation for donors and gives equal recognition."

In March 2010, the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil
Liberties Union rejected Stiefel's $20,000 gift through the American
Humanist Association to underwrite an alternate prom for Constance
McMillen, who sued her school district after she was barred from
attending her prom with her girlfriend.

"Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the
majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word `atheist,"'
ACLU Mississippi fundraiser Jennifer Carr wrote in an email to the head
of the AHA.

Following media reports, the Mississippi ACLU apologized for Carr's
"inappropriate email" and Stiefel's donation was eventually accepted.

Piet Levy

Piet Levy writes for Religion News Service.

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