Bible Belt atheist challenges US sheriff
Miami - An atheist and self-described member of the "most hated minority in America" has filed a lawsuit accusing a sheriff in Florida's conservative Bible Belt of arresting her and trampling her constitutional rights because of her work to separate church and state.
EllenBeth Wachs, 48, said her suit against Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, an evangelical Christian, puts her at "ground zero" in the struggle against religious intolerance.
If she prevails in what her lawyer Lawrence Walters sees as "a precedent-setting case," he said it would help ensure that no US citizen is discriminated against or subjected to frivolous criminal charges for expressing a non-religious viewpoint and not believing in God.
"Mr Judd is actually using law enforcement to basically do a legal lynching of me," Wachs told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
She was referring to having been arrested by Judd's deputies three times since March - what she sees as a campaign of harassment and retaliation against her.
Wachs, a non-practicing lawyer from Pennsylvania, is the Lakeland, Florida-based legal co-ordinator of a non-profit group called Atheists of Florida.
She moved to Polk County in 2006 at about the same time Judd grabbed national attention for defending officers who fired about 110 rounds of ammunition at a man suspected of killing a sheriff's deputy.
The man died after being hit 68 times and Judd told reporters, "I suspect the only reason 110 rounds was all that was fired was that's all the ammunition they had."
Wachs first ran afoul of Judd around Christmas last year, 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.
She signed the requests, motivated by her belief that the gift of taxpayer-funded equipment violated the separation of church and state, with "Esquire" after her last name.
That designation prompted Judd to dispatch a team of team of officers to her home in March and arrest her on charges of illegally posing as a lawyer, a felony.
"It was outrageous," Wachs said of her arrest. "I opened the door and there was about 20 paramilitary-garbed police out there. It looked like a SWAT team was about to raid my neighbourhood."
She has been arrested twice since - on a misdemeanour marijuana charge and a felony sex charge for allegedly moaning repeatedly in a sexual manner inside her home.
The charges in the three cases still are pending and Walters said Wachs faces considerable jail time if convicted. He said said all three arrests were for "bogus crimes on trumped-up charges" stemming from Wachs' campaign to keep religion out of politics and public affairs in Polk County.
The sheriff's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In her suit, Polk County is described as a place where "Christian prayer rituals are routinely held before government meetings" and school board members have sought to have creationist "intelligent design" taught in classrooms.
"Polk Country happens to be a particularly religious county and we have a particularly religious government," Wachs said.
Despite its deep social conservatism, Walters said there had been a groundswell of support for Wachs in Polk County.
"The community in general, as they saw this whole thing go down, called these events Gestapo-like and retaliatory and scary," 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."
Wachs said she fears being arrested again. But she has no intention of leaving Lakeland and looks forward to seeing how her suit plays out in Federal District Count in Tampa.
Despite polls consistently showing an overwhelming majority of Americans dislike atheists, Wachs is determined to stand her ground.
"It's the most hated minority in America - most hated and most distrusted minority in America," Wachs said.
"Mr Judd seems to be wanting to perform a legal exorcism on the atheists in his county and the fact of the matter is that atheists don't believe in exorcisms."
"I'm going nowhere any time soon. And I will stay here and continue to be a vocal activist for my atheist viewpoint."