Reporters have been banned from her home -- her mother is adamant on this point -- so the McDonald's across the street from Buffalo Grove High School has to serve as her impromptu media headquarters.
None of which is surprising, when you consider that Dawn Sherman is all of 14.
Her lawsuit challenging the new Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act in Illinois has already resulted in a temporary injunction blocking the law's mandatory moment of silence for the 13,000 students in Township High School District 214. Now, she and the No. 1 atheist activist in Illinois -- her father, Rob -- are going after a bigger prize: They want the law struck down as unconstitutional.
During a wide-ranging after-school interview, the girl at the center of the legal battle proves quieter and more measured than her outspoken father, but no less spirited and determined.
"She's a rugged individualist, and I say that in the most positive way," says Dennis Northway, Dawn's former middle school choir director, who once jokingly suggested to Dawn that she should sing in his madrigal choir at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park -- and was shocked when she took him up on the offer.
"She is Dawn, and she is who she is, and that's a good thing. She's an extremely rich human being."
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.
"Dawn would rather be respected than be ..."
"Adored and admired," Dawn interrupts.
"Well, no," her father says. "If it's a choice between being respected or being popular, Dawn chooses being respected."
The younger of two children of Rob, 54, a concert promoter, and his wife, Celeste, 51, an accountant, Dawn was exposed to her father's beliefs at an early age. She jokes that when she was still a fetus, her father would whisper to her mother's belly: "God is make-believe. God is make-believe, and Daddy is perfect."
At age 2 1/2, Dawn was echoing her father's "God is make-believe" line on an NPR segment focusing on the beliefs of her older brother, Rick, now 25. By about 2nd grade, she was sitting down for the "under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 5th grade she and her father persuaded a school choral group to stop singing a Jewish prayer.
"I don't believe there's a God," she says.
"I'm just here. I don't know how I'm here. I don't know how the first cells of life came, but I believe in evolution. I believe there is no creator up there who created the universe in seven days, and when you die, you don't go to heaven. You go 6 feet under the ground with a pile of dirt on top of you."
Those beliefs make her part of a tiny and unpopular minority. Only about 3 percent of Americans are atheists, according to a 2007 poll for Newsweek, and a December Gallup poll showed that voters would be more likely to reject an atheist for public office than a member of virtually any other minority. Despite a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a religious test for Maryland public officials, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina bar atheists from holding public office, and Arkansas prohibits atheists from testifying in court.
Faced with such hostility, many atheists choose to keep their views to themselves. Dawn -- an A student who hates gym class and devours 800-page books for fun -- has taken a different route. At her first high school student council meeting, she raised her hand and said she didn't want "God Bless America" to be among the songs played in the hallways during homecoming week.
"If you want to listen to 'God Bless America,' you can download it onto your iPod and listen to it in the middle of class," she said.
"You can't force me to listen to it, because it's not secular. It's not what I believe, so I would appreciate it if you took it off the list. Thank you."
The song was stricken from the playlist with little discussion, a move that allowed Rob Sherman to boast to the Daily Herald that his daughter "got God banned from homecoming."
"Oh, did that get a reaction out of the community. They were [ticked]," Sherman says gleefully.
After the "God Bless America" incident, someone egged the Shermans' house, stuck a church bulletin to the front door and chalked religious graffiti at the end of the driveway, misspelling Jesus. But Dawn says she wasn't rattled: "I was more disturbed that I had to help clean it up. It was disgusting."
Dawn was doing schoolwork on the Internet in October when she came upon the new law, which calls for a brief but mandatory period of silence at the start of the school day. She went to her dad, a former national spokesman for American Atheists, and he told her he already knew about the law and was going to a school board meeting to protest.
She said she would go along.
"My rights were being affected because, first of all, the teacher is being made to stop teaching, and I'm being [made] an audience to something that is heavily suggestive in the direction of prayer because of the title of the act. It's called the student prayer and silent reflection act," she says.
On Nov. 14, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman issued a preliminary injunction barring Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 from observing the moment of silence, calling the law too vague and "likely unconstitutional."
Gettleman made his ruling after hearing brief arguments from the Shermans' attorney, Gregory Kulis, who called the law "nothing but injecting religion into our public schools."
Supporters of the law in the Illinois House and Senate have emphasized the benefits of silence and reflection.
"This was never about trying to require prayer in the schools," Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) has said in published comments. "This is a way for teachers and students to [start] their day off in the right way."
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 5.
Reaction at Buffalo Grove High School has been fairly mild, Dawn says: "There are two friends who hate me right now, two friends who think I'm awesome, and a bunch of friends who don't really care."
Celeste Sherman says she supports her daughter's lawsuit but bars reporters from their home because of privacy and security concerns.
With his cowboy hat, booming voice and hearty handshake, Rob Sherman is a larger-than-life figure.
Dawn's wire-rimmed glasses, loose-fitting clothes and unstyled hair suggest a personal style that's decidedly more understated.
"I am not a lot like my dad," she says, smiling at him. "He likes to go after things without a second thought. I like to think things through occasionally. He and I disagree on a lot of things."
A choir girl
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.
Then there's the matter of hairstyles. Dawn says her father wants her to part her hair on the side, just like him.
"The Robbie Jr. look!" Sherman crows.
"I don't want to be Robbie Jr. I want to be my own person!" Dawn says, laughing but not giving an inch. "That's why I've never parted my hair over the eye."
Her father smiles proudly. "She's almost exactly like me," he says.