Was This Florida Woman Arrested for Being an Atheist?

EllenBeth Wachs, 48, has been arrested three times in four months by Polk County, Florida, sheriff's deputies – and she claims it’s because she’s an atheist who has worked to keep prayer out of public meetings.

In a federal lawsuit filed against Polk County Sheriff Gracy Judd, who is an evangelical Christian, Wachs contends that she has been repeatedly arrested on “frivolous criminal charges” because of her work advocating for church-state separation as legal coordinator for the nonprofit Atheists of Florida.

According to Reuters, Wachs first encountered Sheriff Judd in December, “when she filed several public-records requests to look into his decision to donate the Polk County jail’s basketball hoops and other equipment to local churches.” Wachs, a non-practicing lawyer, signed the request with the word “Esquire” after her name. That simple act caused Judd to dispatch what Wachs described as “about 20 paramilitary-garbed police” to arrest her on felony charges of illegally posing as a lawyer. Wach’s own attorney has said using “Esquire” doesn’t violate any bar rules.

And the other two arrests? One came in May, after Wachs allegedly tried to stop some neighbors from playing basketball outside her home by “moaning repeatedly in a sexual manner from an open window in her house, saying ‘Oh John,’ in a crescendo,” according to The New York Times. For that, officers arrested her on felony sex charges and conducted a search of her house, during which they took away a safe. The officers said they found marijuana in the safe, so they arrested Wachs a third time for marijuana possession. All three charges are still pending.

Sheriff Judd, by the way, has received national attention for his efforts to crack down on pornography and sex offenders. And in 2006, around the time Wachs moved to Polk County, Judd made headlines for defending officers who shot to death a man suspected of killing a sheriff’s deputy. The police officers fired 110 rounds of ammunition and hit the suspect 68 times. “I suspect the only reason 110 rounds was all that they fired was that’s all the ammunition they had,” Judd said at the time.

Community reactions to Wachs’ situation have been mixed. Her lawsuit describes Polk County as a place where “Christian prayer rituals are routinely held before government meetings” and school board members have supported the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms.  But according to Wachs’ attorney, many local residents are still supportive of his client.

“The community in general, as they saw this whole thing go down, called these events Gestapo-like and retaliatory and scary,” [Lawrence] Walters said. “The community knows what's happening. We have a sheriff that's out of control, frankly, that's misusing his position to the detriment of our client and to the detriment of the First Amendment, and we hope to put a stop to it.”

But others blame Wachs.

Conservative religious leaders in Polk [County] say Wachs has it all wrong. Lynne Breidenbach, a Christian activist and media consultant for churches, says Wachs and other members of Atheists of Florida are the ones who are the cause of the ongoing problems. "This is a community of faith, and faith is very important to the people of Polk County, and if they (Wachs and other atheists) would like to live and work here as members of this community, they need to be more accommodating of us," Breidenbach said.

Ah, you see? There wouldn’t be a problem at all if the atheists would just shut up and “be more accommodating” of their Christian neighbors.

For information about EllenBeth Wachs’ legal defense fund, visit the Atheists of Florida website here.

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