Revolution#125, April 6, 2008


A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

Fourteen-Year-Old Atheist Dawn Sherman:

"we didn't want an injection of religion
into public school"

School Praye

Dawn Sherman, a 14-year-old Chicago-area high school student, filed a lawsuit challenging the Illinois mandatory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. This law forces students to pray in schools—an overt violation of the supposed constitutional separation of church and state. Its proponents, Christian fundamentalists, have made no secret of the fact that they just added “silent reflection” to the act to get around a 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that—in the midst of the upheavals of the time—overturned mandatory prayer in schools. This law is similar to laws in 12 states, and represents a part of a whole movement to impose Christian fundamentalism as the law of the land. In October 2007, the Illinois legislature passed the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. The Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, vetoed the bill stating that it was unconstitutional; the veto was overturned by the Senate in a vote of 42 to 9. Dawn Sherman’s father, Rob Sherman, himself an activist against theocracy, filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of his daughter, who is a sophomore at Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. Their lawsuit demands that the law be declared unconstitutional and asks for an emergency injunction that would stop the law. On his website, Rob Sherman says about the law, “All Illinois public school teachers are required to lead their students in a period of silent prayer ‘at the opening of every school day, with the participation of all the pupils therein assembled.’ Those who refuse to pray are permitted to engage in one very limited and narrowly defined alternative activity, namely ‘silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day,’ but the clear purpose of the sponsors of the mandatory Student Prayer Act, with its requirement that students pray except for those who refuse to do so, is Christians attempting to inject as much prayer as possible into the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.” The current status of the Illinois law is that it was temporarily blocked in November of 2007 by Federal District Court Judge Gettleman. The injunction prevents the Buffalo Grove school district from implementing the law. March 19, Judge Gettlemen ruled that the case should be turned into a class-action lawsuit, open to all students and school districts in Illinois. Before the March 19 ruling, the suit was limited to the Buffalo Grove school district. Future hearings will determine whether the injunction preventing the school district from implementing the law will apply statewide. This case is part of a larger battle over the separation of church and state and the “culture war” in America. This is related to and happening in the context of attacks on fundamental constitutional rights and norms that were at least formally established at the founding of the U.S., even if they have not always been applied and have been fought for again and again. In the 1950s, prayer and religion in school were imposed with a vengeance. This was the time when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and blind faith in “god and country” were a given. In the ’60s, some of this was challenged. Prayer in public school was determined to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1962 case Engel v. Vitale. Since then, there have been a number of laws passed and suits filed that attempt to interject prayer into schools as a “moment of silence” or “meditation.” Today, 12 states have a similar mandatory “moment of silence,” and more than 20 other states have laws that make this optional.

Revolution correspondent Alice Woodward interviewed Dawn Sherman, a 14-year-old Chicago-area high school student who filed a lawsuit challenging the Illinois mandatory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.

Revolution: Tell us why you filed a lawsuit against the Illinois mandatory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.

Dawn Sherman: The original law, before it was amended from “may” to “shall,” said that the teacher of the class would have the opportunity to have a moment of silence in which the students would either silently reflect or pray. The law that my father and I fought against was the act where the word “may” was turned into “shall,” so it became a requirement that every morning the teacher would perform a brief period of silence where the students would either pray or silently reflect. And we know that is an endorsement of religion, which the government can’t do because it specifically required a student to consider, at the very least, prayer as an option, and for those of you who chose not to pray you can just silently reflect. So it’s an endorsement of prayer and religion, and so we didn’t want an injection of religion into public school.

We filed a lawsuit against School District 214. Our judge was Judge Gettleman. Our first goal was to get an injunction on District 214 doing the moment of silence, and our ultimate goal was to extend it statewide and get it declared unconstitutional so that no school or school district would be able to do it. And the judge said that it was probably unconstitutional so he gave us the emergency injunction, but he hasn’t extended it statewide so we’re still doing the legal briefs and stuff.

Revolution: Tell us why you feel this is important.

Dawn Sherman: It’s important because my rights as a citizen of the United States are backed by the Constitution; my First Amendment right is freedom of religion and freedom from religion. To allow anyone to get away with even a small or one violation of that right indicates that I can let them get away with other bigger violations of my rights. So, 15 seconds of silence for something, which is endorsing prayer and religion, may not seem like a big deal to other people, but it’s a big deal to me because, if I let that go by, it indicates that anyone can violate my constitutional rights of freedom from religion.  It’s also a huge waste of my time, it wastes a good four hours like a year from my education, and it’s still an endorsement of prayer.

Revolution: What has been the reaction of students and teachers at school?

Dawn Sherman: Most of the discussion and debate has come from students. I know there’s some teachers who think the act is ridiculous; I think there are some teachers who just don’t care. With students, a lot of people—this doesn’t happen very often anymore, it happened more initially when we sued District 214—but back then students would come up to me and ask me why it was such a deal to me, it was only 15 seconds to them, it wasn’t a big deal to them; a couple people thought it was great that I was doing this, they congratulated me on winning the emergency injunction. A couple students were really ticked off at me. Most students don’t really care.

Revolution: Have you come under attack at all for taking this stand?

Dawn Sherman: No teacher or administrator has really said anything to me about it, but it was a subject of debate amongst me and a couple other students and several students would ask me about it, but no one’s really harassed me about it, except for the students who will say “God bless you” unnecessarily loudly in front of me whenever someone makes an incredibly fake sneeze. And sometimes I walk past people and they say, “God Bless America” or “I love God” to their friends; they were just doing it to annoy me. It doesn’t really work.

Revolution: What has been the reaction of people elsewhere?

Dawn Sherman: Most of the information I’ve gotten about people’s opinions around the country or from the neighborhood were letters to the editor to the Daily Herald, and occasionally to the Tribune and Sun-Times. The [Chicago] Tribune, their article was posted on a website with comments, and there were over a thousand comments on it. It was pretty evenly divided; about half of the people think that this was great what I’m doing and half the people think that I’m an idiot that’s been brainwashed by her father and we’re a tag team that just waste other people’s time and we should get a life.  And those came from around the world, like the very first comment came from Albania. Although all the foreign ones seemed to agree with me. The one from Albania said good for me for standing up for my rights and being so strong-minded at such a young age.  Someone from France got into this really intense discussion with a couple other people about how we were turning into a theocracy and that I was standing in the way of the United States becoming a theocracy, which was so incredibly great for him.

Revolution: At what point did you decide that you were an atheist?

Dawn Sherman: When I was, like, five, everybody kept saying that the only reason I was an atheist is that I was just sucking down all the stuff my dad taught me—and I was a real brat when I was five—so I was like, “I’m gonna prove you wrong!” I went to the library, it was just happenstance that one day I happened to see a Bible, and I wanted to actually look through it and see what was in it—which was fine with my parents, they think its perfectly fine for me to look through the Bible and I’ve actually read it. I looked through it when I was five—I had just learned how to read actually—and the first thing I read was the Ten Commandments, and I said to myself, this doesn’t make sense, this is terrible, why would someone who is so omnipotent and so wonderful and so good and so loving punish people for things that are within human nature?! Don’t feel jealous, don’t feel anger, don’t want to take revenge against someone who’s done you wrong, who’s like, your mortal enemy? That doesn’t make sense, that’s within human nature. And that’s how god was supposed to have created us according to Christians and Catholics and Jews and every other believer, they believe that god created  us as we are right now and we have our own independent way of making what it is of it. And if he made us with human nature then that’s just not fair for him to punish us for that! And punish us for the qualities that he himself gave us, so that’s why I don’t believe that he exists because someone that wonderful and that loving wouldn’t do that.

Revolution: A lot of times when I tell people I don’t believe in god, one of the first questions they ask is where do you think you came from then? How do you answer that?

Dawn Sherman: Actually, I do have an answer for that question that I just learned recently! I do believe that we came from evolution and just recently I read an article from, “Seafloor Chemistry: Life’s building blocks made inorganically” [ 20080202/fob1.asp], that says that the origins of life may have been found from hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean! There are inorganic reactions that are creating organic materials in hydrothermal vents in a place called the Lost City. So I used to be able to only say, I believe we came from evolution and I’m not sure where the first cells of life came from, but I know they came from somewhere and I don’t believe that was from god. Now I have an answer!

Revolution: Tell us more about that.

Dawn Sherman: Hydrothermal vents. They are little things in the bottom of the ocean and they spew very hot acidic material and they often contain a lot of gasses. Not very many organisms can live there, only bacteria known as archae bacteria can live there and survive and yeah, it’s just an extremely extreme climate, and they result in these towers because the materials kind of clump together and create these towers and what’s unique about the Lost City is that it’s the only hydrothermal vent that they know of that actually behaves the way it does in having inorganic reactions that create organic molecules and having towers that are so enormous—it’s just not common for hydrothermal vents—but it’s one of the largest hydrothermal vent systems in the world and it’s right near the center of the Atlantic Ocean.

Revolution: What other discussions have you had with people about the Bible?

Dawn Sherman: I’ve occasionally discussed the Bible and ideas and concepts that people have about god, the fact that god sends these hardships down to us to teach us and to lead us to accept him, and guide us along the right path, and my immediate response to that is, well now you’re being left the victim, why would a loving and wonderful god make you a victim of something just to prove your loyalty to him? That’s one of the main conversations I’ve had with really intense believers. A lot of people ask if I worship the devil, and that is just the most perpendicular question anyone has ever asked me, even though it’s a really common question I get, because god and the devil are two very related topics: if you can’t believe in one, you can’t believe in the other; so if I don’t believe in god, I can’t believe in the devil; so I can’t worship him either.

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