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Has the American Cancer Society Been Caught Covering Up a Rejection of Atheist Money?

The ACS has been stung by accusations of anti-atheist bigotry in its fundraising. Is it making things worse by trying to cover its tracks?

"What really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur, because overzealous people in campaigns do things that are wrong. What really hurts is if you try to cover it up." -- President Richard M. Nixon, August 29, 1972

The American Cancer Society is not happy. It insists that it is not discriminating against atheists. It insists that its recent decision to deny the Foundation Beyond Belief a national team in its upcoming Relay for Life -- and its decision to reject the $250,000 matching offer that would have gone with it -- had nothing to do with the fact that the FBB is a non-theist organization. It insists that it had already decided to do away with non-profit participation in the Relay for Life on a national level, and that the FBB's request just happened to come at the time when it had made that decision. And they really, really want atheists -- and believers who are equally outraged by this controversy -- to stop bugging them about it.

The problem is this: The facts don't match their story.

Actually, the facts strongly suggest a coverup. An online trail clearly shows non-profit organizations with national teams in the Relay for Life, and shows the ACS actively soliciting non-commercial organizations to participate in the program -- right up until the original AlterNet article about the FBB controversy appeared. At which point, the national teams of these non-profits abruptly had their status changed to "Youth Affiliates." And the online trail clearly shows that several non-profits are still participating as Youth Affiliates with national teams in the Relay for Life -- a form of participation that is still being denied to the Foundation Beyond Belief, with no explanation from the ACS. ( Supporting documents for this story are available on the author's personal blog.)

What's more, the American Cancer Society's attempts at damage control have included contradictions, distortions, deceptions, and flat-out misinformation: about the Foundation Beyond Belief, about Todd Stiefel (the atheist philanthropist whose family offered the $250,000 matching offer in the first place), even about AlterNet. And its attempts at damage control have turned into an ugly attempt to blame Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief for raising the issue in the first place. (Conflict of interest alert: While I have no direct relationship with Stiefel other than for the purposes of writing this story, his foundation supports many atheist and secular organizations, some of which I'm professionally connected with.)

Something Fishy This Way Comes

The story was fishy from the start. When atheist philanthropist Todd Stiefel contacted the American Cancer Society and offered a $250,000 matching offer to support the non-theistic charitable organization Foundation Beyond Belief's participation as a national team in the ACS's Relay for Life, his offer was initially welcomed and approved. But then the American Cancer Society stopped responding: repeated emails and phone calls from Stiefel were not returned for over a month, and eventual responses from the ACS ranged from apathetic at best to hostile at worst. Finally, after many go-arounds, Stiefel's offer was declined, and he was told that the ACS was no longer including non-profits as national teams in the Relay for Life. Requests for the FBB to participate as a National Youth Partner were also rejected -- in a contradictory series of statements, with the ACS first telling Stiefel that the youth program was being accelerated, then saying it was being de-emphasized. (Further details are in the original AlterNet story about this controversy.)

So do these statements from the American Cancer Society match the facts?

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