Atheist who fought Illinois laws dies in small plane crash

FILE - In this May 25, 2012 file photo, atheist Rob Sherman addresses the Friends of the Cross board in Alto Pass, Ill. Suburban Chicago authorities say Sherman who described himself as "the best known atheist-activist in the Midwest" has died in a small plane crash. The McHenry County coroner's office on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016 said 63-year-old Robert I. Sherman of Poplar Grove died in the crash. Sherman was an outspoken atheist known across Illinois for going to court to challenge religious displays in public spaces or using state money for religious purposes. (Chuck Novara/The Southern Illinoisan via AP, File)

MARENGO, Ill. (AP) – An Illinois man who was one of the better-known atheists in the country and an activist for keeping religious and government affairs separate died in a plane crash last week, officials said Monday.

The McHenry County coroner said an autopsy Monday revealed that Robert I. Sherman, 63, of Poplar Grove, died from multiple crash injuries. Authorities said Sherman was piloting a small plane that crashed into a cornfield either Friday night or Saturday morning. The crash is under investigation.

Sherman was an outspoken atheist and critic of using state money for religious purposes and having religious displays in public spaces. He also hosted a radio show and ran for public office several times.

“He was a proud fighter for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. He was a great activist and a great person,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists Inc., said in an email to the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve flown with him in that very plane when he gave me a tour of Chicago. He loved that plane and loved flying it.”

Legal challenges he filed included a 1989 lawsuit over an Illinois law requiring public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He said the words “under God” contained in the pledge were unconstitutional.

In 2007, he and his daughter, Dawn, sued over a state law requiring schools to have a moment of silence.

Sherman also took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court involving a 2008 state grant that went toward restoring an 11-story cross in southern Illinois known as the Bald Knob Cross of Peace.

Sherman was behind a 2002 federal lawsuit complaining that it was unconstitutional to read a prayer at a Sept. 11 memorial service hosted by Chicago’s mayor. A federal judge ruled against him.

In 2008, Sherman sued to stop then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to give a $1 million state grant to help Pilgrim Baptist Church, a historic landmark on Chicago’s South Side that had been badly damaged by fire.

A Green Party candidate for Congress this year who had already announced for 2018, Sherman ran for state representative in 2006 and 2008, for Buffalo Grove village clerk in 2011. He was Cook County Green Party chairman in 2012. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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