Imperial Polk County Florida. Now there's a name that says everything.
There were public KKK meetings and parades here up to the 1980's. There's a Baptist church every 200 feet and the good ol boy reality still functions here. The local sheriff, Grady Judd, is a grand standing publicity hound who models himself on the "I am the Law" antics of Arizona's infamous Joe Arpaio slathered with a heaping of Evangelical Christian family values, likely with an eye on state politics. He's been harassing a local atheist activist for a while now and she has finally set up a lawsuit against the sheriff and others for his obvious pro-xtian witch hunting.
By Matthew Pleasant
LAKELAND | The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator filed a federal lawsuit Friday against Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd that alleges her recent arrests are retaliation against her secular views.
EllenBeth Wachs, jailed twice this year, is seeking an injunction to stop Judd from arresting her or launching new investigations about her. She claims the charges she currently faces are a result of her "assertion of a non-religious, atheist viewpoint in the predominantly Christian-oriented Polk County," the lawsuit says.
Some of her allegations go beyond Judd. Wachs claims he hatched a scheme with other unnamed residents and officials in the county -- referred to only as "doe defendants" in the suit -- to silence Wachs, who protested last year when Judd donated jailhouse basketball hoops to churches.
Her lawsuit claims Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields and Stacy Butterfield, the county comptroller's financial director, conspired with Judd "to ensure the establishment of an atheist-free Polk County, beginning with the persecution of" Wachs. It cites a connection between Judd, Fields and Butterfield as fellow board of director members of Polk Vision, a planning group.
Fields and Butterfield are also linked to Wachs' March arrest on a charge of illegally posing as a licensed Florida attorney. Court papers say both told investigators they thought Wachs was holding herself out as an attorney. Wachs, a Lakeland resident, is a retired attorney from Pennsylvania.
Butterfield declined to comment Friday, and Fields declined through Kevin Cook, the Lakeland city spokesman. The same went for Polk County Sheriff's Office.
"We're not commenting on any ongoing litigation, whether or not it involves Wachs," said Donna Wood, a PCSO spokeswoman.
Judd himself could not be reached by phone Friday.
Besides the fight with Judd, she has protested prayer at local public meetings, including filing a lawsuit against the city of Lakeland over the issue, and is prohibited from attending Polk County School Board meetings after a February outburst that led to the arrest of her group's president, Jon Kieffer, on a disorderly conduct charge.
Her suit against Judd was filed by Lawrence Walters, an Altamonte Springs attorney. He said more defendants could be added as the case progresses.
"At the appropriate time, we'll amend the complaint to specifically name the doe defendants," he said. "We have a pretty good idea who they are, but we want to take our time with discovery before actually naming them as defendants."
Wachs was last jailed in May when she was accused of simulating sex sounds from inside her home while within earshot of a neighbor's 10-year-old son. Sheriff's deputies said she made the noises in an attempt to make the boy stop playing basketball outside her house. Later that month, deputies charged her with possession of marijuana, alleging they found marijuana in a safe confiscated from her home.
Her suit claims that a search warrant served at Wachs home was too general, allowing deputies to seize items related to litigation and other materials protected by the First Amendment. It also says that a detective attended a civil hearing on an injunction Wachs' neighbors sought related to the alleged sexual sounds she had made at home. The detective immediately arranged a meeting with the family, "seizing the opportunity to continue his campaign of harassment against" Wachs, which is "misusing the state criminal law enforcement process."
Walters writes in the suit that Judd has maintained the county's "pervasive religiosity" and "deprived the residents of Polk County, Florida, of their right to access virtually any form of erotic speech or entertainment through a concerted effort to intimidate any purveyor of such entertainment through overzealous law enforcement efforts" including threats of racketeering charges.
He notes other actions that show how Judd expresses his religious leanings as sheriff: Biblical scripture in a PCSO newsletter used to describe his 2007-2008 budget; gospel singers performing at sheriff's office events, some of which were held in Baptist churches; and a newsletter that highlights prisoner baptism statistics.
"While the above listed actions may seem innocent in isolation, they point to an obvious and deeply-ingrained tradition of Christianity within the agencies and officials overseen" by the sheriff, Walters writes. "The atheist, Jew, Muslim, or other non-Christian who reads Defendant Judd's newsletters receives a clear message -- 'you are not one of us.'"