Mr. Atheist goes to Springfield

By Jonathan Jacobson

This sentence might be difficult to digest at first, but last week, in the Illinois legislature, something interesting happened. Most people don’t care about the Illinois’ legislative branch, except when they are arguing about the CTA, income taxes or Barack Obama’s distant past. But, fortunately, this has nothing to do with any of those things.

Last Wednesday, state Representative Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat, berated a local atheist activist named Rob Sherman for his beliefs. Or rather, lack thereof.

Sherman was testifying before the legislature about a $1 million state grant that Gov. Blagojevich sneakily directed toward the Pilgrim Baptist Church. Couple that with the debate on Illinois’ mandated school moment of silence period, which is still in legal limbo, and it’s clear that bringing an atheist before some legislators was a recipe for disaster.

“It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!” Rep. Davis told Sherman, demanding that he leave his seat. “You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

Pretty lofty rhetoric, no? Well, not surprisingly, the story has been picked up by some major media and some talking heads like Keith Olbermann, the sports-caster-turned-news-commentator who bestowed upon her the “Worst Person in the World Award” on Tuesday. She actually nudged Bill O’Reilly out of the way for that honor.

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When Sherman showed up to the hearing, he came to testify that church-state separation makes the grant unconstitutional, but it is clear from the transcript that Rep. Davis had loftier concerns. While unleashing her fiery faith on him, she seemed more interested in his atheism than his argument, which is unfair.

The truth is that Rep. Davis could have tuned him out. She could have respectfully told him that she disagreed with his philosophy, and the church deserves the money to help recover from a fire two years ago. But she had no right, as a member of a public body during a public meeting, to berate Sherman’s personal beliefs – even if or because he has none.

It’s hard to say exactly what Davis was thinking when she lost her cool last week, but the fact that she has not yet offered any sort of apology is telling. Even if she believes there should be prayer in schools and that the state should offer its assistance to churches in need, she should still recognize that Sherman did, in fact, have a right to testify.

One of the most embarrassing parts of Rep. Davis’ diatribe, though, is also probably the funniest. She repeatedly referenced Abraham Lincoln and our fine state’s license plate motto to drive her point home.

Even though she has been in the Illinois Assembly for two decades, this might be the most noise Rep. Davis has ever caused.

But it’s certainly the most news Rob Sherman will ever make, assuming his Green Party candidacy for an Illinois House seat this November doesn’t work out.

Sherman – who is campaigning in a mobile home he calls the “Sherman-ator” – is probably relishing the publicity, even if most of it is negative and directed not at him but at Rep. Davis.

The truth is that he’s not exactly Mister Clean, either. His Web site – a bizarre amalgamation of commentary, news, a plug for his travel agency and general babbling – has a few defamatory remarks that have thus far evaded any coverage.

“Now that Negroes like Representative Monique Davis have political power, it seems that they have no problem at all with discrimination, just as long as it isn’t them who are being discriminated against,” he wrote last Friday.

I seriously can’t remember the last time I saw the word “negroes” in print, but even if I could, I would still be taken aback by the generalizations and overt racism of that comment. If it had been posted before instead of after Rep. Davis’ rant, I might have thought she held a personal grudge when she told him to leave.

Between the two of them, there should be a barrage of apologies. And if either one had a good PR man, there would be more than a few mea culpas to go around.

Jonathan is a senior in English and rhetoric. He would like a ride in the “Sherman-ator.”