|Rob Sherman and his wife Celeste in his Zenair Zodiac CH-601 XL in happier days.
The announcement was made late yesterday afternoon. The pilot who died when his small private plane smashed into a field of snow corn stubble on Saturday near Marengo, Illinois just a few miles from me was Rob Sherman. That may not mean much to you unless you are a news junkie with a good memory from the Chicago area or have an active interest in religion and civil liberties. Sherman, the self-described Illinois’ most prominent atheist, was a long-time activist, agitator, crusader, politician, and public pain-the-ass who was widely publicly reviled. Oftentimes the best that the press could call him was a gadfly, the universal dismissive adjective for public cranks and nuisances. This Sunday there are preachers in McHenry County—I can probably name them—who will gleefully boas that God smote the Devil.
The 63 year old Sherman was a successful North Suburban businessman who was raised in a Jewish family who learned Hebrew and could speak Yiddish but became a passionate atheist at an early age. In horror is parents placed him in a psychiatric institution for two years. The experience only hardened his resolve. He joined and rose in the ranks of American Atheists, the organization founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair as the Society of Separationists in 1963. Like O’Hair, Sherman employed the courts in battles to keep religion from being imposed or sponsored by government and in defense of the civil rights of non-believers. He made his mark in landmark litigation that changed national law.
Well spoken, calm, and intensely intelligent Sherman made a perfect public face and voice for the movement. Unlike O’Hair herself or the new generation of often belligerent atheist activists and writers whose main interest seems to be heaping scorn and savage ridicule on believers, Sherman was less likely to challenge individual faith than to oppose the quiet but real oppression of official and semi-official state sponsorship of religion.
|Sherman successfully sued the City of Zion for use of this seal in his first high profile case.
Sherman first rose to prominence in 1987 when he challenged the Lake County city of Zion, which had been founded as a religious colony, for using the Christian symbols of a cross, dove, and a crown with a banner reading God Reigns in the city seal and on official documents, signage, buildings, and equipment. Litigation dragged on for years while Zion official rallied public support for their cause and vilified Sherman at every turn. Sherman received innumerable death threats and literally risked his life when he made appearances at City Council meetings or other local events. Later he also sued the Cook County municipality of Rolling Meadows over similar issues.
The case drew national attention and Sherman’s face was seen on network news shows and on Oprah Winfrey’s show and other programs. Newspapers, magazines, and pundits weighted in for or against his campaign—mostly against.
At the cost of hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars, Zion lost round after round in the courts until the Supreme Court allowed the lower court ruling to stand, and both towns were ordered to drop the religious symbols. The case has been cited as precedent in numerous other cases around the country in years since.
Sherman’s activism became a family affair when his children faced discrimination for their lack of religious belief. In 1997, Sherman’s 15 year old son Richard sued the Boy Scouts of America for denying him membership because he refused to profess a faith in God. The case was closely followed by Unitarian Universalists who found that their own boys were banned from membership if they took a similar stand as explicitly allowed by the UUA scouting organization. As a result Sherman and his son frequently spoke to UU churches and events.
Although the Sherman’s argued that the BSA’s unique Congressional Charter gave the organization quasi-official status, the courts eventually ruled that it was essentially a private club which could set its membership requirements as it saw fit. When the UUA finally resolved its dispute with the BSA last year because the organization essentially dropped its ban on homosexual boys and leaders without addressing the issues of a religious test Sherman expressed disappointment.
The long battle over the Scouts took an odd turn in 1999 when Sherman was accused of slapping his son, convicted of misdemeanor battery, and sentenced to two years of conditional discharge, a court supervision included counseling. Many suspected excessive and selective prosecution in the case to embarrass the activist. Similar minor incidents involving a parent and older teen without an established pattern of abuse are almost never prosecuted in Cook County.
In 2007, Sherman and his 14-year-old daughter Dawn, a freshman at Buffalo Grove High School, sued Township High School District 214 over a new state law mandating a moment of “silent prayer or silent reflection” at the start of classes. Two years later, a Federal judge overturned the law ruling that it amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion intended to bring prayer into public schools. On appeal the decision was reversed on the grounds that the was no harm in silence, which could be implemented for a practical purpose in calming students at the start of classes. Despite the loss, the case slowed or deterred other states from drafting similar legislation.
|Sherman challenging a Nativity Scene set up in a park in his home town of Buffalo Grove. He was never afraid to be unpopular.
In addition to his court cases, Sherman was the go-to-guy for comment on a range of issues including public nativity displays at Christmas, prayer at public meetings and at public school sports events, enforced recital of the Pledge of Allegiance with the “under God” phrase inserted during the ‘50’s Red Scare, and the continued use of the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins and currency. He often sparked sputtering public outrage like when he tried to stop prayer at a 9/11 memorial at Daley Plaza in Chicago. He not only shrugged off the hatred directed toward him, but wore it as a badge of honor.
He authored many op-eds and longer journal articles. Sherman hosted a morning drive talk show on the former WJJG AM 1530, a DuPage County based station.
Sherman regularly monitored meetings of all levels of government. He regularly ran for office including stabs at local office including school board, township government, city clerk and State Representative from his long-time home in Buffalo Grove. He was routinely drubbed and smeared as a Communist although he called himself a “Constitution thumping capitalist. He was Cook County Green Party Chair in 2012. His last run ended in November when he ran as the Green Party candidate for the Illinois 5th Congressional District.
|Earlier this year with his "In Rob we Trust" penny logo on his campaign t-shirt, Sherman posed with Green Party Presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein.
Sherman lived through the rise of the Religious Right and witnessed its dwindling influence as the so-called Nones—those with no religious affiliation—including atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists became larger in numbers than the adherents of any religious faith. Despite this he knew that atheist remained the most despised and mistrusted minority in America in poll after poll. The election of their libertine-ally-of-convenience Donald Trump has re-energized to most rabid elements of the Christian Right and Sherman was gearing up for new battles.
But activism was not Sherman’s only passion. He was also a longtime pilot and enthusiastic member and was a former local chapter President of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). After he retired from his long-time office supply business, he started new business building light sport aircraft to special order.
Last Friday Sherman took off from the strip by his new home in an aviation subdivision by Poplar Grove Airport for a short flight to attend an EAA Holiday Party in Schaumburg. He never made it. A passerby noticed the crumpled aircraft in the field the next morning. Buy Sunday authorities identified the plane as belonging to Sherman but did not get a positive identification of the only body on board until yesterday.
Sherman was flying his beloved Zenair Zodiac CH-601 XL, a low wing flying coupe. Sold in both ready-to-build-kits and factory assembled, Sherman’s plane was purchased fully manufactured. It was the flying equivalent of an old MG sports car—totally impractical but fun, zippy, and a little sexy. Sherman even had it painted a bright red.
After the Zodiac model was involved in six crashes resulting in 10 fatalities the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issuing an urgent safety recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), asking the agency to ground the plane until the flight control issues were resolved. The FAA declined but after another deadly crash in 2009 ordered owners and operators of Zodiac CH-601XL aircraft to comply with a safety directive from the manufacturer. Manufactured planes like Sherman’s were effectively grounded until modifications were made. Presumably Sherman’s plane was in full compliance.
The NTSB is expected to announce preliminary results of its crash investigation next week.
|Sherman and his family in 2010 on an Illinois River cruise--Richard, Dawn, and Celeste.
Sherman is survived by his wife of 36 years Celeste and now adult children Richard and Dawn who continued to support their father’s activism. As of this writing, not funeral or memorial arrangements have been announced.