Recently, the state government of Illinois proposed a $1 million grant to rebuild the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, which was destroyed by a fire earlier this year. Atheist Rob Sherman testified before the House State Government Administration Committee to oppose this blatant violation of the separation of church and state.
What happened next was difficult for me to believe. Here’s a transcript of an exchange between Sherman and state representative Monique Davis, as reported by Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune:
Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy — it’s tragic — when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.
I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?
I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous—
Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?
Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!
Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court—
Davis: 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.
Zorn’s post also has the audio; you can listen for yourself how Davis works herself into a lather, ending in the spitting, angry demand for Sherman to “get out of that seat” and accusing him: “You believe in destroying!”
Sherman, to his credit, kept calm, ignored her bigotry, and went on with his testimony. While his polite and civil reaction did make her unprovoked vitriol look all the more ridiculous and ignorant, Rep. Davis’ attitude is a stark reminder that there are elected officials still eager to uphold the most disgusting and virulent hatred against those who do not think or believe like them.
The Supreme Court held in the 1983 case Lynch v. Donnelly:
The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions …The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.
Rep. Davis’ reaction was a perfect illustration of the unconstitutional, anti-American attitude the Supreme Court wrote against. She flew into a raving fury over the mere existence of an atheist, hurling all manner of vile and prejudiced slurs and insults at him, and culminated in a demand for him to get out of the room – because after all, what makes an atheist think that he has a right to participate in our democracy as if he were a regular person like anyone else?
Notably, both Davis and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich are Democrats, which shows that anti-atheist bigotry and religious pandering are not confined solely to any political party. Although freethinkers are growing more politically influential, we have a long way to go before we can fully cleanse the detritus of theocracy from government.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a start. Here is Rep. Davis’ contact information. If you have the time, please call or mail her – politely, but firmly – and let her know that you do not appreciate an elected official showing such hate and bigotry toward one of her own constituents. It’s not out of the question that we can enlighten her to the ugliness of her own actions and shame her into treating American atheists with more respect in the future.
UPDATE: Davis apologizes.
Other posts in this series: