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updated: 9/13/2012 5:18 AM

New voice in church and state tiff may seem heaven-sent

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  • Atheist Rob Sherman addresses a downstate group in May while trying to stop Illinois from awarding $20,000 in state funds for the renovation of the 111-foot-high Bald Knob Cross of Peace. He lost that legal battle but appealed this week to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Atheist Rob Sherman addresses a downstate group in May while trying to stop Illinois from awarding $20,000 in state funds for the renovation of the 111-foot-high Bald Knob Cross of Peace. He lost that legal battle but appealed this week to the U.S. Supreme Court.
    Associated Press

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It felt like an April Fool's Day joke when my editor, a one-time atheist named Lee Strobel, sent me to the religious hamlet of Zion on April 1, 1986, to cover the story of a little-known activist.

"Atheist Robert I. Sherman rode into the Lake County community of Zion Tuesday night, past the 28 Christian churches that lined streets such as Bethel, Damascus and Gabriel, and asked the born-again mayor and his city council to take God out of the city slogan and emblem," began the front-page story on April 2, Sherman's birthday.

A quarter-century later, Zion's government is barred from giving shoutouts to God. The editor Strobel forsook newspapers long ago and converted to a born-again Christian pastor and author with a series of best-selling books about Jesus. Sherman, who lives in Buffalo Grove, grew into the state's best-known and most-influential atheist. And I'm still writing for Daily Herald readers, many of whom are sick and tired of stories about Rob Sherman and are afraid this will be another.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. A new voice for those concerned with the separation of church and state will be born today in Illinois. The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C., is expanding its efforts beyond the federal level by opening a chapter in Illinois and other states. Interested people can find out more during today's special 2 p.m. Illinois organizing meeting by calling (530) 881-1400 and using the participant access code of 978895.

"Some of the most egregious violations of church/state separation are being promoted and passed at the state level, and we absolutely must act to stop it," says Edwina Rogers, who worked for several Republican senators before becoming executive director of the secular group. "There are 40 million Americans who don't identify with any religion, but our political influence has been limited because we have not been organized. This year, that changes."

That change could push Sherman out of the limelight, which might be a good thing for those who support the separation of church and state. In winning many of his battles, Sherman makes enemies. Always quick with a pithy sound bite, Sherman has a way of irritating folks, including some who agree with him on the issues.

When he refers to Christians as "Constitution-hating Christers," he burns more bridges than he builds. I've seen him smile smugly as he goads an old lady into wishing for him to contract a terminal disease. TV personality Keith Olbermann once branded Sherman the "Worst Person in the World."

In an attempt to appear kinder and gentler, Sherman removed his "God is Make-Believe" bumper sticker from his red convertible with the "ATHEIST" vanity plate. But he replaced it with the image of a large coin sporting his likeness under the slogan "In Rob We Trust." He also uses that egotistic logo as his Facebook profile photo and throughout his website, where he does tackle some public issues that go beyond religion.

The reason so many people "hate" him is simple, Sherman says.

"When I speak up, it reminds them that there is no God, there is no heaven and they've been flushing their money down the toilet," says Sherman, who, sensing he is on a roll, is unable to stop himself from expanding his mocking beyond those already offended. "America is a country where people embrace and love their fantasies."

The Secular Coalition promises to work with the diverse religious communities and legislators to prevent "attempts to insert religion, religious privileging or religiously based discrimination into our secular laws," or use "taxpayer funding to support, promote or proselytize religion or religious beliefs," says Lauren Anderson Youngblood, the group's communications manager.

"We don't do lawsuits. We don't do billboards," Youngblood adds. "We definitely don't want to convert people."

The agency does want to level the playing field, she says, using the recent example of a 1-year-old Indiana boy who drowned in the baptismal pool of a faith-based day care that didn't have to meet the safety requirements demanded of licensed day care facilities. She says nontheists need representation, and she points to a recent Pew Forum study indicating that 30 percent of Illinois residents do not express an absolute belief in God, and that 54 percent of Americans say that houses of worship should keep out of political matters.

"I'm glad they are jumping into the battle now, but let's see if they actually do something," says Sherman, who notes he is comfortable playing the "bad cop" in this debate. "What we need this time is action and not just happy talk about state/church separation."

Sherman, who turns 60 in April, vows to stay in the public eye.

"If people really want me to stop getting publicity, all they have to do is impress upon their elected officials the urgency of supporting the Constitution and abiding by its provisions," Sherman says. "Then I could move to the Cayman Islands and they wouldn't have to deal with me anymore. How's that for a sound bite for you?"

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