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No One Expects the Polk County Inquisition!

June 29, 2011

I just recently learned the story of EllenBeth Wachs, who is suing Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, for harassment. Wachs has been arrested three times recently, each time for a trumped up charge.

It seems that Sheriff Grady Judd doesn’t like EllenBeth Wachs because she is an atheist, and a politically active one at that. She objects to the Polk County practice of starting school board meetings with prayer. And she was angry when Sheriff Grady removed basketball hoops from the county jail so that they could be used instead by churches.

Unfortunately for Sheriff Grady, he couldn’t arrest Wachs for being an atheist, because atheism is not a crime, no matter how much he might like it to be. Instead, though, he arrested her for other things things that are also not illegal. Specifically, according to Lizette Alvarez’s article in the New York Times, he first had her arrested for signing “Esq.” after her name on requests for public information. (She is a retired lawyer and is entitled to use the honorific according to Lawrence Walters, Esq., who is representing Wachs and also serves as General Program Counsel for Woodhull.) Later, he had her arrested for moaning erotically inside her own house with the windows open. During this arrest her house was searched and a safe was removed. (The charge was simulation of a sex act in the presence of a minor, for which she was actually jailed. I’m not sure how the safe was involved.) The third arrest was reportedly for marijuana possession, said marijuana having allegedly been found in the safe which was removed during the second arrest, which was trumped up. (An aside: Wachs has multiple sclerosis. I don’t know whether or not she had marijuana in her house, but if she did I can imagine it to have been medically useful.)

To clarify: Apparently for a particular Christian Sheriff in Polk County, it is more acceptable to arrest someone for things that are not illegal if those things involve education or sexuality than it is if they involve atheism. Does this mean that the secular humanist movement is making more progress than the sexual freedom movement? All things being equal, and examining only legal activities, is it easier to get away with a bad arrest if it’s for a sex-related activity than if it’s for a religious one?

The “moaning arrest” raises other questions, of course. Would Judd have felt justified in arresting Wachs if she’d actually been having sex? Will new zoning guidelines be required so that when new housing developments are constructed moaners are kept separate from households with children? Does this have implications for sexually active parents of children?

Be honest, Sheriff Judd: You are really just angry that EllenBeth Wachs exercises her first amendment freedoms in a way that offends your particular Christian sensibilities. Why not go to church, pray for her soul, and leave her alone.

Or better yet, do some reading about integrating sexuality and religion, which need not be so at odds as some folks make them out to be.


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