School prayer and a young atheist

school prayerChicago Tribune staff reporter Nara Schoenberg had a fairly solid profile last week of an Illinois teenage atheist who is, with her father, legally attacking the state's "Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act" as a violation of her rights. The teenager, Dawn Sherman, is the focus of the story, and the reporter uses Sherman's personal story to explain one side of the separation of church and state debate. The problem Sherman and her father have with the state law is that they believe it is "heavily suggestive in the direction of prayer because of the title of the act." A federal judge issued a preliminary order prohibiting Sherman's school district from observing the prayer/moment of silence time, which is hardly the end of the legal story, but it is a pretty significant victory.

Much of the story focuses on the daughter's interaction with her father and how that personal relationship has affected this legal drama. Even the headline of the story -- "The atheist's daughter" -- works with the idea that Dawn Sherman is not her own person. She is her father's daughter:

Asked directly if the lawsuit is an effort to please her father, her co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, who has challenged hundreds of local religious symbols in recent decades and engaged in several high-profile legal battles over the separation of church and state, Dawn doesn't hesitate:

"No, it's entirely about me and my rights."

"You have to know Dawn's personality," Rob Sherman says, having joined his daughter halfway through the interview. "Dawn's personality is, 'Don't mess with Dawn.'"

"I'm very enthusiastic about my rights," Dawn says with an angelic smile.

By focusing on Dawn's relationship with her famous atheist father, the reporter is able to flesh out Dawn's beliefs and motives in challenging this law. It is natural for supporters of this law to view plaintiffs like Dawn as mere tools of politically charged adults so it is appropriate in one sense to flesh that idea out and allow readers to make their own conclusions:

One way they have diverged: Dawn sings religious music in the Grace Episcopal choir. She loves the music, she says, and the words don't bother her because she doesn't attach much meaning to them. Her father says that singing in a church wouldn't be his choice, but he doesn't stand in his daughter's way.

In terms of balance, the story focuses heavily on the arguments and view points of those who oppose this law. And that is OK as long as equal space is given in a reasonable time to the other side of the debate. The story of the challenger will generally make for better stories like this, but there are ways to write compelling articles that highlight the other side of the coin.

Reporters should always ask, when someone claims their rights are violated, where the source of those rights are. If it is the Constitution, which is often the case, it is important to identify whether the Supreme Court has declared that the Constitution does indeed protect those rights. In this case, the story only quotes the district court's statement that the law is "likely unconstitutional" and fails to do any research into whether the law falls within the boundaries established by the only court that matters in cases like these.

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