My Life as An Atheist Activist or “False Idols Fall” Part 1
Two years ago today, I opened my front door to see a SWAT team standing there. What was my crime? Sending public records requests to the Evangelical Sheriff on a mission from god demanding records relating to his illegal transfer of taxpayer property to eight local churches. For this egregious conduct, over a dozen sheriff’s deputies were dispatched with a crime scene van to my residence. They came with guns drawn and a purpose other than arresting me. It was to send a message to the impertinent atheists to mind our business. My house was searched for hours and left in shambles. What was the basis of the search warrant? Well, I will let an old friend speak to that.
…Gow Fields, the mayor of Lakeland, as well as Ann Gibson, the legal affairs coordinator for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office should be duly ashamed of themselves. I would be remiss if I did not include Stacy Butterfield, a board member of the homeowners association in the subdivision where EllenBeth lives, and who is also the Director of Financing and Accounting for the Board of County Commissioners.1 These three clowns based the warrant for her arrest on an “impression” that she was a licensed attorney. An impression connotes that they never even bothered to ask. It is quite likely that their failure to properly investigate a situation before making an arrest was some sort of convoluted “sin first then ask forgiveness” trick.
Of course, this whole situation is all about timing. It is highly unlikely that EllenBeth was arrested just days before she and the Atheists of Florida were to enter into the disposition*2 phase of a suit being brought against the City of Lakeland for its practice of beginning their city commission meetings with sectarian prayers. Add to this the already existing animosity that was generated by the Atheists of Florida having brought a previous suit*3 against the Polk County Sheriff’s Office due to Sheriff Grady Judd giving sports equipment that had been in use at the county jail to area churches.
But wait, it gets even more inbred. Gow Fields, Lakeland’s Mayor, is married to Kay Fields, who is the Polk County Board Chairwoman.*4 In what can only be described as an infantile temper tantrum and an act of pure vindictiveness, the combined efforts of both of the Fields, Gibson, Butterfield and Grady resulted in the Florida State Attorney*5 arresting EllenBeth on a trumped up, disingenuous, completely bogus and un-indictable charge
I was not to be silenced. I made this apparent through multiple media outlets and interviews. When this became a public relations nightmare and it became clear that many persuasive opinions were coming out against him such as the The Ledger, respected legal scholar Jonathon Turley and the local legal writer Kemp Brinson, the sheriff upped the ante and sent his posse after me once more. In May of 2011, I again opened the door to sheriffs’ deputies. I was dragged away, thrown in the back of a car and taken straight to solitary confinement. No phone call, no rights read, Constitution be damned. It was not until I met with my attorney that I learned the outrageous allegation being levied against me. If you can’t win on a level playing field, brand your opponent a pedophile and teach her a harsh lesson. I spent almost a week in solitary confinement without my MS medications.
What was my so-called crime? It was based upon a report that my next-door-neighbor’s child had heard some sound purported to be of a sexual nature coming from within my house some 48 days prior to my arrest.
I am going to leave out a lot of background and quite a bit of the story as it is tedious and not necessary for the purpose of this post. If you are interested in further details about the tangled web of government and church in Polk County follow link here which explains PUP or Polk under Prayer.
The outrage that occurred after my first arrest couldn’t begin to compare to the noise that reverberated at the sheer ridiculousness of the second charge instituted against me and the blatant power play in effect. The pushback was immediate and harsh. The Ledger came out with an editorial chastising the State Attorney and once again, Jonathon Turley chimed in with a snarky blog post I’ll Have What She’s Having, a reference to an infamous line from the movie When Harry Met Sally.
At the time of my first arrest I had been asked to become president of the state Humanist organization based upon my prior activism and ability to generate excitement within the community. I offered to withdraw my name from consideration but was told that I was supported enthusiastically. I made the same offer after the second arrest, as well, with the same result. I later learned that I was elected almost unanimously to the position with just one person abstaining.
Support from within the atheist community was heart-warming. Fundraising was initiated to help with my legal expenses and petitions started on my behalf. Letters of support poured in from around the world. Also at that time, I was serving as vice-president of Atheists of Florida and their Legal Affairs Coordinator. The board was fully supportive in defending my efforts and helping defray legal expenses and recognized the arrests were in retaliation for my church/state activism done on the organization’s behalf and at the behest.
I had known from the beginning of my activism that I wouldn’t always be well-received. I was well-known in the community prior to these events due to my very vocal advocacy on behalf of the absolute separation of church and state. I was lead plaintiff in ground-breaking litigation against the City challenging their practice of opening every meeting with Christian prayers using an Equal Protection claim as well as the usual church/state argument. I did educational outreach about the Christmas myths. I went to speak to the school board because they moved the christian prayer prior to the start of the meeting and, by so doing, teaching the children it is okay to flout the constitution to keep the christian privilege intact. The president of Atheists of Florida was arrested at that meeting. The initial newspaper account stated,
As Bartow police dragged the president of Atheists of Florida out of the Polk County School District auditorium before Tuesday’s School Board meeting, he yelled, “Prayer has no place in government! Prayer has no place in government!”
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Winston Churchill
I was there. At no time did John yell this but this has become fact in the repetition of this event. You don’t have to take my word for it. There is an audiotape of the whole episode. I have learned all too often over the past two years that truth is relative to the person and facts don’t matter when there is bias involved.
What I didn’t expect was the bitterness, push-back and hatred I would end up receiving from other atheists and self-proclaimed humanists. I received a few snarky comments from atheists here and there telling me that I was a bad representative for the face of atheism. It seems that if it is on the internet, even atheists will believe it to be true. The first real problem I encountered was in the form of an atheist man showing up on a Facebook thread that was promoting a petition that had been started on my behalf. He made sure to tag me in his comment which let me know that I was a vile disgusting person that belonged in jail. Looking back, I should have seen his obsession that day, or rather over a period of three days and over seven hundred comments later. But, as they say, hindsight is twenty/twenty.
When the charges against me were dismissed, there was a huge outpouring of solidarity within the atheist movement. I had never sought “martyr” status and would gladly turn it back in but people were hailing me as a hero for the cause. How quickly things can change.
Stay Tuned for Part Two – “The Shove off the Pedestal”
*1 Stacy Butterfield has since run for and won the office of The Clerk of Courts which oversees all Polk County court activity including all criminal and civil cases that are filed.
*2. There is no such thing as a “disposition” phase. My arrest came immediately prior to my deposition being taken in the Lakeland prayer lawsuit
*3. There was no previous suit against the sheriff for the transfer of county property. There was litigation threatened. I was still gathering the public records thus the arrest.
*4 Kay Fields was actually Chair of the Polk County School Board
*5 It was not the “Florida state attorney.” Florida has a State Attorney General. Each county has its own State Attorney. It was a Polk County Asst. State Attorney, Brad Copley, that approved the arrest warrant He also happens to work closely with Judd.
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