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Who is Rob Sherman, traveling atheist?

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Paul Newton / The Southern Rob Sherman addresses the Friends of the Cross board during its meeting on Tuesday, July 27, in the Alto Pass Civic Center. Sherman was asking the board to return a $20,000 grant it received from the State of Illinois, and has since sued the group for not returning it.

Since making his foray into the affairs of Southern Illinois in May, atheist Rob Sherman of Buffalo Grove has captured the public's attention - not always favorably - and challenged community leaders on his crusade to advocate the separation of church and state.

But Sherman's self-imposed mission began long before he visited the region to challenge the constitu-tionality of a $20,000 state grant to Bald Knob Cross and argued against a proposal to install a Ten Commandments monument in Marion's Tower Square.

Sherman, 57, said his stance as an atheist took full form at age 9, when a teacher failed to answer a classmate's question on what evidence proves God's existence.

"The more I thought about it, I realized it was man who created God in his image, and not the other way around," Sherman said.

Then, in 1981, his beliefs went to the next level when he heard a radio speech by American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who successfully won a battle against mandatory school prayer and Bible readings in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959. Sherman was motivated to join the organization and eventually became its Illinois director and national spokesman.

1986, seminal year

In 1986, Sherman started his first legal battle against the mixing of government and religion, as he challenged the mayor and city of Zion, located near the Wisconsin border, on the inclusion of religious symbols on municipal logos, material and property.

His efforts were successful and landed his name on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, on the city's 10 o'clock newscasts and on national television talk shows, including those of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Larry King.

He said he took up the mantle of promoting his cause across the state and nation simply because no one else was doing so. "I'm the only one doing it. Most people suffer from poultry syndrome, so they don't take on these cases. They're chicken."

Motives questioned

Some people, such as Marion City Commissioner Jay Rix, aren't convinced of the purity of Sherman's motives.

Rix said Sherman has gotten what he wants in the form of attention and public outrage. While he doesn't want to condemn the man or sound hateful, which he said would be un-Christian behaviors, he has problems understanding Sherman and his motives.

"There's no way I can understand people like that," he said. "I honestly don't know what to say. Why, why would anyone do something like that?

"You're supposed to love the sinner and hate the sin, but he really pushes your thinking."

Sherman left American Atheists after 10 years to found his own organization, Rob Sherman Advocacy, a venture supported by his other entrepreneurial efforts, including a travel agency, a delivery service, concert booking and airplane sales. He also used to host a morning drive radio show in Chicago.

In 2006, Sherman unsuccessfully campaigned for an Illinois House of Representative seat as a Democrat. Two years later, he met Green Party gubernatorial candidate and Carbondale attorney Rich Whitney, and the two developed a mutual respect. Sherman joined the party and ran - again unsuc-cessfully - for the same House seat.

"I doubt I'll do it again," he said of a possible third run. "The community has made it clear they don't want me as their messenger because I'm an atheist and the majority are Christian, and that's their choice. I did what I could."

Whitney and Sherman also developed a professional relationship, and Whitney has represented Sherman on some of his efforts to challenge for the separation of church and state in Illinois. The two currently have a case against the state over allegations of funding from last year's capital bill going to sectarian organizations.

"Rob is a very gregarious person, very outgoing, very friendly. He just believes very deeply - not just as an atheist but as a civil libertarian - that it is not the government's role to support religious organiza-tions," Whitney said. "While he's like me in the sense that he's not afraid to get in front of a camera and run his mouth, it really is about the principle for him. He really believes in the cause he's promoting."

Hello, Southern Illinois

But Sherman's recent trips to Southern Illinois have left varying impressions with different people.

Allen James, attorney for the Rev. Bill Vandergraph, past president of Friends of the Cross, who is named in Sherman's lawsuit over Bald Knob Cross. Vandergraph still considers Sherman a friend, de-spite the differing opinions, James said. Outside the $20,000 state grant, Sherman has repeatedly stated his general support for Friends of the Cross.

At a May meeting where he first threatened to sue the organization over a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Sherman donated money to the cause and received a T-shirt being used as promotional material for the annual Crosswalk fundraiser.

In Marion, where Sherman has recruited a Wiccan resident to help him challenge a proposal to put a Ten Commandments monument on city property, however, Sherman's reception has been colder.

Mayor Bob Butler said that Sherman acts friendly enough in public, but the long-time city leader doesn't believe Sherman has a track record to back up his confidence and attitude.

Still, Butler said Sherman must be allowed his rights to address the city council and to challenge any future decisions.

"It's a free country, and people are entitled to whatever they want to say," Butler said. "He's executing his constitutional right."




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