The Making of an Angry Atheist Advocate

EllenBeth Wachs

“I’m sorry, Your Honor, but I haven’t been sworn in yet.” As I stood in the courtroom in Bartow, Polk County, Florida, in August of 2011, the judge looked at me in utter confusion. His clerk had administered the typical religious oath to the mass of defendants awaiting their turn at the bench. My attorney interrupted, “My client would like to affirm, Your Honor.” With that out of the way, the trumped-up criminal charges that had been brought against me were dismissed. The state attorney for the Tenth Judicial Circuit sought a quick resolution of the nonsense, because he realized that it was not in the state’s best interest to move forward to trial. Instead, he offered a settlement agreement that dismissed the felony charges against me and averted convictions on all charges. I had to plead no contest to a paraphernalia charge, but adjudication would be withheld. I had turned the offer down flat the first time it was made, but after two more months, thousands of dollars more in legal fees, and my life on hold, it seemed silly not to accept. I had been facing twenty-two years in prison if convicted on all the charges.

The arrests were part of a retaliatory strategy by the evangelical Christian sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd, to suppress my activism in church-state separation matters: specifically, my investigation into Judd’s transfer of jail basketball goals to eight area churches. Sheriff Judd has proudly stated that he is on a “mission from God” and keeps a Bible prominently displayed on his department’s office desk.

I was arrested on the first felony in March 2011 for “practicing law without a license.” The charge stemmed from my use of “Esq.” (an honorific used by practicing and retired attorneys) with my signature on public records requests to Judd, which asked for information about the jail sports equipment transfers. I discovered that the basketball equipment that was taken from the jail was not the same equipment that was given to the churches. Judd whipped out the sheriff’s department credit card and purchased new equipment to give to religious facilities, all as a publicity stunt for himself. He saw that I was not going away and was making quite the news story about this issue.

Sheriff Judd dispatched over a dozen deputies in SWAT attire to arrest me at home and to conduct a search of my residence while deputies held my two part-time employees at gunpoint. They left my house in shambles with furniture overturned, car doors left open, every single light and fan left on, and my underwear drawer pulled out and obviously rifled through. (I understand lawyers are known for their briefs, but this was taking it too seriously.) They seized all of my business computers, my cell phone, my driver’s license and, ridiculously, my iPod and Buns of Steel workout video. Most telling, they seized all of the documents that I received in response to my records requests about the jail basketball transfers. These documents revealed a more serious church-state violation that was occurring within Sheriff Judd’s department. I had discussed this violation with members of my organization, and strategy about this was on my computer that had been seized.

In May, I was again arrested at my home. Obviously, I was a threat. Based on a neighbor’s report that he and his child had allegedly heard a sexual sound coming from the privacy of my home forty-eight days prior, I was charged with “lewd and lascivious conduct within the vicinity of a minor” (emphasis added), a felony. Can you imagine the ramifications of this charge if I had been convicted? Parents would have had nightmares figuring out how to have sex. My bail from my previous arrest was revoked and I was detained in solitary confinement in Sheriff Judd’s jail for six days without my multiple sclerosis medication, until a bail hearing determined I would be released under certain conditions. I had to call in to the county twice a week and had an 8:00 p.m.–9:00 a.m. curfew. Because I work from home, I was basically under house arrest.

Most members of the local community were outraged. I had support from the local paper, which published multiple editorials lambasting government officials for their persecution of me. The atheist/humanist community rallied support fairly quickly as well. Bloggers chimed in from around the world. Some were rather amusing, some not so much. Of course, there was the predictable response from those that didn’t bother to gather any facts but jumped to conclusions. When this happened within the secular community, I was the most disappointed. A petition was started on my behalf and close to five thousand people from around the world signed it within months. As to be expected, the hate mail poured in. The support mail came as well.

My arrests were very curiously timed. I am the lead plaintiff in ongoing civil litigation against the City of Lakeland seeking to stop Christian prayers at City Commission meetings. Each arrest came right before I was to testify in my deposition. Furthermore, the affiants in the arrest warrant were Mayor Gow Fields, the defendant in my lawsuit, Anne Gibson, Grady Judd’s legal affairs coordinator, and Stacy Butterfield, who works for the county clerk, used to work for Gibson, and is treasurer of my homeowner’s association. My next-door neighbor, who was responsible for the second arrest, works for Mayor Fields and the City of Lakeland as a firefighter, and his brother is a Lakeland police officer. The players in this drama are so intertwined, a flowchart would be necessary to keep them all straight. For brevity and, to some degree, clarity I have left a few conspirators out.

It later came to light that prior to my first arrest, a large prayer event had been held in Lakeland called Polk Under Prayer (PUP), in which Grady Judd, Gow Fields, and Sherrie Nickell, the superintendent of the Polk County School District, participated. Two weeks prior to this, I had been at a Polk County School Board meeting and protested the board giving Christian prayers there. Nickell and Kay Fields, the board chair and Gow Field’s wife, were responsible for having me thrown out and given a trespass warning.

PUP was organized by Richard Geringswald, a man who has been hounding me since I appeared on the scene as an activist. He has come to every event I have put on, even going so far as to put up a blockade at a planned photo shoot of my “One Nation Indivisible” billboard. At one meeting in which I participated, he informed the Lakeland City Commission that “atheists have no right to speak” and slammed his fist for emphasis as he declared “this is our house,” meaning that the City Commission meeting belonged to its Christian residents and not to atheists.

During PUP, participants went to multiple county borders with the following purpose: “A strip of anointed oil has been placed over all lanes of highway at the county line and a prayer has been given at each location asking God to bring them to have angels inspect every vehicle that travels into or out of this county and to bring under conviction to those who seek evil and we asked God to bring them to a state of submission and repentance. If they will not submit to God’s way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county” (emphasis added). I was arrested two days later.

To stop any further religiously motivated persecution against me, I sued Sheriff Judd in Federal District Court in June, seeking an injunction and asserting that his actions, which included the two arrests and a search of my home, violated my civil rights. Immediately after this lawsuit was filed, the state attorney approached my attorney seeking a resolution. When the charges were dropped, I voluntarily ended my lawsuit. If Judd harasses me again, I can reinstate it.

In March 2012, after hearing about PUP from my talk at the joint conference of the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism in Orlando, an outraged supporter and friend organized the “Un-Anointing of Polk.” Representatives from multiple atheist/humanist groups went to a Polk County line to symbolically “wash” away the anointed oil and open the county to all. The response was immediate and outrageous. The story went viral and was picked up by news outlets around the country and even overseas. The Christian community was horrified that their sacred spot had been desecrated. The salient point lost on them was that the spot in the road had been picked at random, since there was no way to know where the oil had been placed previously. So much for symbolism!

What is the moral of my story? Atheists and secular humanists sometimes lament the effect of people they call “angry atheists.” They assume that we’d be more effective as a movement if we’d all put on a happy face and work with religious people in support of our common goals and values rather than focusing on “delusions” and the ruinous effects of religious beliefs. This may work in some areas of the country, but it is misguided to think it is possible everywhere. The hostility that atheists face is not always caused by the tone the atheists take. I wasn’t really an angry atheist until the Christians of Polk County started persecuting me. Now I’m damn near apoplectic, and I will continue to fight back—angrily.

EllenBeth Wachs

EllenBeth Wachs is a retired attorney, the president of Humanists of Florida Association, and the acting president of Atheists of Florida, Inc. Her personal philosophy can be summarized as “Treat cats like gods.”

“I’m sorry, Your Honor, but I haven’t been sworn in yet.” As I stood in the courtroom in Bartow, Polk County, Florida, in August of 2011, the judge looked at me in utter confusion. His clerk had administered the typical religious oath to the mass of defendants awaiting their turn at the bench. My attorney …

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