LAKELAND, Fla. (CBS Tampa) — A local atheist organization made a splash on Saturday when they symbolically washed away a blessing placed on a major highway into the county one year ago.
The tongue-in-cheek protest on County Road 98 was meant to bring light to a bigger issue seen by the Humanists of Florida Association – an issue of seeming conflicts of interest between several high-seated county officials and their faiths.
“If it were just some church blessing a road, that’s not a big deal – churches can do what they want,” HFA director Mark Palmer told CBS Tampa. “The point of [the demonstration] was to protest the co-mingling of church and state … the government endorsement of religion.”
Their main point of contention was a billboard posted by the Christian Churches of Polk County and the Polk Under Prayer movement (PUP) that boldly displays photos of Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, Polk County School Board Superintendent Dr. Sherrie Nickell, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
“We simply want Polk County to realize that … there are many different types of world views out there, and they need to open county borders to all of the people,” HFA president Ellen Beth Wachs told CBS Tampa. “We understand that Christians have their way of life, and we’re not trying to take it away from them. But they need to realize that there are many other types of faith, and people of non-faith as well.”
Scott Wilder, director of communications for Polk County Sheriff’s Office, said that Judd had participated in a PUP-sponsored meeting of a more secular nature, but that he and other officials were not involved with the highway annointing ceremony.
“[They] attended a big public meeting of mainline churches … to talk about what challenges face the county,” he said to CBS Tampa. “It was a mainstream event.”
Added Wilder of the blessing ceremony, “None of them had anything to do with it – the sheriff, the mayor, or the superintendent.”
The blessing itself was performed on March 1, 2011.
“Mainly, we want this to be a safe haven for folks who want to raise their families,” PUP organizer Dr. Richard Geringswald told WFTS-TV. “Asking God’s protection from ne’er do wells and evil doers.”
The website for Frank Smith Ministries further explained how the blessing administered by PUP would work.
“It’s objective is to place Holy Angels at all roads that lead into or out of Polk County,” the blog post said. “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 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.”
The post added, “If they will not submit to God’s way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county.”
The mission reportedly took its desires for incarceration seriously. Not long after the blessing, Wachs was arrested twice within the following two months.
According to the website for the Polk County Jail, Wachs was arrested on March 3 and May 1 of 2011 — first for fraud claiming that she misrepresented herself as a qualified practitioner of law and then for lewd and lascivious behavior with a victim over the age of 18.
Wachs said the charges were fraudulent.
“I had taken [them] on in a church/state separation issue … and sent a SWAT team in [to my home],” she added. “They arrested me … and put me in solitary confinement.”
Wilder said her claims are the inaccurate ones, calling her accusations “borderline libelous.”
“[Wachs] just has a thing about Grady Judd – that’s what this is all about,” he added.
As for the blessing and unblessing demonstrations, Wachs said that both measures were symbolic at best. The aim of the HFA, though, is to make sure all feel welcome in Polk County.
“Look, we just want the world to know that Polk County is open to everyone,” Wachs said. “You can’t just draw a line of oil across the county line and say, ‘Only Christians allowed.’”
Calls made by CBS Tampa to representatives of Polk Under Prayer were not immediately returned.