Atheists of Florida, like many other atheist groups affiliated with the Atheist Alliance, had its beginning as a chapter of American Atheists.
During the 1980’s, American Atheists (AA) operated a chapter program intended to increase membership through the activities of these chapters. To indemnify the organization from being financially depleted through a lawsuit, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of AA, formed six organizations in addition to the anchor corporation, Society of Separationists, Inc. A board of directors was established for each corporation consisting of O’Hair, her son, Jon Murray, president for life of American Atheists, and her adopted granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, and two other members of AA. This way, the O’Hair family retained complete control of all corporations, which were run essentially as a family business.
It must have been clear to O’Hair that neither of her children had the notoriety or charisma to sustain the organization following her death, so she structured the business to provide for their future. Any funds inherited by the organization became the private property of the O’Hair family, never accounted for within the organization. Jon even once confided in me that upon his mother’s death, AA would likely simply be dissolved and he and his sister would likely emigrate to New Zealand or some other country harboring a less hostile attitude toward atheists. To the membership and the board members, though, they were always pleading the poverty act, asserting that unless they received substantial support from the membership and board members, they would spend their way through the last remaining Certificates of Deposit held by the corporation and AA would end up bankrupt.
Christos Tzanetakos, Director of the Miami Chapter of AA and a member of one of the corporate boards, began to express concerns about how AA was being run. He asserted it should be run according to laws governing 501 (c) (3) organizations whereby the membership would elect the officers, similar to the operating practices of the National Academy of Sciences. AA, he contended, was simply a family business and as such was in violation of non profit organization laws. When his objections were met with contempt from O’Hair, Tzanetakos complained to the IRS suggesting AA was operating in violation of the law. According to Tzanetakos, O’Hair responded by closing all but one of the chapters (the surviving chapter was involved in litigation at the time). Tzanetakos had accumulated over $6,000 in donations he intended to use to instigate a scholarship fund sponsored by the Miami chapter. Chapter bank accounts had been opened using the AA 501 (c) (3) charter documents in each state, which subsequently gave the O’Hairs access to all bank accounts. Overnight, the O’Hairs looted the scholarship funds from the Miami chapter bank account and closed the chapter.
Tzanetakos was understandably livid about all these events. With the backing of his substantial membership, he decided to incorporate Atheists of Florida (A of F), which he did January 22, 1992.
A second AA chapter had been operating in the Tampa Bay Area. When closed with all the others, I was contacted by a few members asking that I continue to organize monthly meetings so we local atheists might keep in touch with each other. We continued to hold casual meetings that accomplished little more than camaraderie among the members.
Upon formation of A of F, Tzanetakos contacted me informing me of his actions and explaining that if a minimum of ten members from a common geographic area joined A of F, they could form a chapter. I discussed this with the TBA people and they consented to become members of A of F.
The initial board meeting of A of F was held August 9, 1992 in Miami, FL, attended by three members from the Tampa Bay area. At that meeting, the board of directors approved chapter status for the Tampa Bay area members.
Tzanetakos again formed a scholarship fund and began collecting donations for it. Eventually, Tzanetakos retired from his business and moved to Ft. Pierce, FL, leaving the Miami chapter under the direction of Patrick Bens. Following Bens’ departure from the directorship, the Miami chapter dissolved while the Tampa Bay chapter continued to grow. Increasingly, the majority of board members came from the Tampa Bay area, and eventually the Tampa chapter obtained space in a commercial building in South Tampa, which evolved into the headquarters of the organization.