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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?

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In other words: The ACS has been telling organizations privately that they can dismiss the AlterNet story because it's inaccurate... but is unwilling to make that accusation publicly, or to publicly state what exactly about the story was inaccurate.

And that's very fishy indeed.

Could It All Just Be a Misunderstanding?

It's possible that this whole controversy really is just a case of poor institutional communication. It's possible that the American Cancer Society really was planning to phase out non-profit participation in this program. And it's possible that internal communication about this policy change was poorly handled: so poorly handled that word about it didn't filter down to the right people -- from national vice presidents, to web designers, to the organizations participating in the program -- until it was too late, and the snafu had occurred.

But that isn't what the pattern points to. The pattern looks much more like an attempt by the American Cancer Society to cover their tracks in the face of a firestorm of outrage and bad publicity; an after-the-fact effort to make it appear as if their hastily cobbled-together cover story had really been their plan all along. The pattern strongly suggests that the ACS didn't want to be associated with the Foundation Beyond Belief in such a public manner on the national stage. It suggests that they delayed, dodged, and found an excuse to deny this participation. And it suggests that they expected this excuse would be accepted meekly, and that the matter would just quietly go away.

If so -- they guessed wrong.

The American Cancer Society has been getting an enormous amount of flak over this controversy. Shortly after the original AlterNet story broke, the ACS Facebook wall was deluged for days with expressions of disappointment and outrage -- by religious believers as well as atheists. Many ACS donators declared their intention to withdraw any future financial support. Even now, three weeks after the story first appeared, the complaints are still coming in.

So what now?

It seems unlikely that this situation with the American Cancer Society and the Foundation Beyond Belief is fixable. The ACS is clearly battening down the hatches and entrenching itself in its position. And even if it reversed its position and granted the FBB a national team as a Youth Affiliate in the Relay for Life, it seems unlikely that the atheist community would trust it enough to enthusiastically participate. The damage has been done.

So here's the point.

It is not usually this hard to give away money. Especially not $250,000. Especially not a $250,000 matching offer -- with the potential to raise a total of a half million dollars. But donations from both Todd Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief have been turned down before -- in some cases, with explicit statements that atheist money was too controversial to be associated with. So it's not a wild stretch of the imagination to think this could be happening here.

Atheists, however, are becoming a real community. They are becoming visible, vocal, organized, and readily mobilized. They are becoming a force to be reckoned with. And they want to use this power for good. They want to contribute to society. They want to participate in it. They want, in some cases, to give away a quarter of a million dollars to help fight a terrible disease. But they are not willing to do so as second-class citizens.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

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