The hypocrisy of Atheist Alliance International

by Martin Boers

We are all subject to the laws of the countries in which we live, or visit, or do business. We might not like some laws, but most people understand that every law is there for a (hopefully good) reason. In some cases we might forgive law-breakers - think of a parent who runs a red light while driving their critically ill child to a hospital. But those cases are exceptional, and claims by any individual or organisation that they are above the law should be treated with scepticism.

A well-known example of an organisation that claims to be above the law is the Catholic Church. For many years, secular campaigners have been raising awareness of the Church's attempts to avoid accountability for decades of alleged law-breaking. For example, in a 2021 article titled "Vatican Smokescreen: Canon Law Changes & Sexual Abuse", historian and writer Jason Sylvester states:

"The Vatican princes, and indeed religious leaders across the faith spectrum, think themselves and their institution above the law and are only beholden to God."

Sylvester goes on to ask:

"Why does the Vatican think itself immune to the laws of the lands where these crimes are committed ... ?"

There is an obvious answer to this question. The Catholic Church thinks that, if they are forced to account for past or present wrongdoing, then all the good work they are currently doing will be adversely affected, and many people who are helped by the Church will suffer as a result. By this argument, civil laws can be ignored if the Church believes - based on their own religious doctrines - that it is for the greater good. A similar argument was recently supported by Anglican bishops in the UK.

People like Sylvester are right to call out this attitude. It is clearly anti-democratic and should not be entertained for one second in a modern society.

It turns out that Jason Sylvester is the director of an organisation that is also flouting the law while attempting to avoid any accountability. Formed in 1991, Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is the only international atheist organisation that has Special Consultative Status at the United Nations. Being registered as a non-profit corporation in California, AAI is subject to California State and US Federal laws, including the California Corporations Code. There are three main agencies that organisations like AAI must deal with:

  • The Secretary of State, who maintains records on (for example) the office-holders of each corporation registered in California.

  • The Franchise Tax Board (FTB), who collects state taxes from corporations registered in California. The FTB has the power to grant tax-exempt status to non-profit corporations like AAI, which (as the name suggests) makes them exempt from state taxes.

  • The Attorney General, who maintains a Register of Charitable Trusts and is responsible for protecting the public from the misuse of charitable donations by organisations registered in California.

Unfortunately, Atheist Alliance International has had problems with each of these state agencies in recent years:

  • According to public information on the California Franchise Tax Board website, AAI had their tax-exempt status revoked in 2016, and that status has never been restored. Tax-exempt status can be revoked by the FTB if the organisation fails to meet certain California provisions governing exempt organisations, e.g. failure to file annual returns. Non-profit organisations without tax-exempt status are required to pay a minimum Franchise Tax of $800 each year. Failure to pay can result in substantial interest and penalties. This means that, since 2016, at least $800 of charitable donations have been spent each year on a completely avoidable tax. In the worst case, interest and penalties may have been added to this amount. The AAI website promotes their "transparency" and "integrity", but there is no apparent disclosure in any of AAI's published accounts, going back many years, of any tax liability or payment to the FTB.

  • In 2018 and 2019, AAI paid then-director John Richards many thousands of dollars, in breach of the California Corporation Code on self-dealing transactions. Such transactions are required to be disclosed to the California Attorney General in an organisation's annual report. AAI did not disclose the payments to John Richards in their original returns for 2018 and 2019, and they only corrected those returns in June 2023 after a whistleblower filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office. There has been no public statement from AAI about these payments, or any apparent attempt to recover the money that was paid to John Richards.

  • In 2021, the Secretary of State finally suspended AAI, after repeated failures by AAI to submit biennial Statements of Information, as required by law.
The suspension of an organisation by the Secretary of State is a very serious matter. According to one California-based law office:
"When a corporation is suspended, it has lost all rights and privileges as a corporation and cannot legally operate. In that regard, technically a suspended corporation is required to close its business and stop all business-related activities."

Once suspended, it is a relatively simple process to "revive" a corporation by submitting all outstanding returns and paying all outstanding fees, taxes and penalties. There appears to have been no attempt made by the board of AAI to initiate this revival process since it was suspended in 2021, yet AAI continues to solicit charitable donations from the public, and otherwise carry on business as usual.

Attempts have been made to hold the board of AAI accountable. At AAI's Extraordinary General Meeting in January 2023, a member of AAI proposed a motion that would have required the board to answer questions about their governance of the organisation. During the subsequent hour-long debate, board members argued strenuously against the motion. The acting President of AAI, Brian Kernick, said "This is stuff that happened in the past. ... We need to move forward." Another director, Tonoy Emroz Alam, made an impassioned plea to members to ignore questions about the governance of the organisation:

"I want you to know that we have Asylum cases all across the world, we have like 18, 19 blasphemy cases right now. Those people will die, okay? We are taking care of these cases all across the world. What type of time it consumes. Like it is very easy, you guys want us to answer. Who is going to answer 100 questions? it is absurdity even to ask us …"

These sound very much like arguments that the Catholic Church has made in their attempts to avoid accountability. The board of AAI thinks that, if they are forced to account for past or present wrongdoing, then people will die as a result. The California Corporations Code can be ignored if, in AAI's opinion, it is for the greater good.

To quote from the article written by Jason Sylvester, a current AAI board member:

"As the saying goes, ‘The more things change the more they stay the same.’ This is certainly true for the Vatican and its attempts to dodge any and all accountability for its continued institutional failings ... It is time the Church faced the harsh reality of its failings and recognized that its members are not above civilian law."

Jason Sylvester and his fellow AAI board members would do well to get their own house in order before accusing others of this type of behaviour.

Prior to publication, all current board members of AAI were sent a list of questions about the issues raised in this article. None of them responded.


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