I am gratified to inform our readers that Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, has had his hot head chilled. Judd was the subject of a news item five years back when he and his colleagues cornered a murderer in the woods and pumped 68 bullets into him, then titillated the media when they questioned him on why the officers had used so much ammunition: “That’s all the bullets we had!” he brightly declared. Now, Sheriff Judd is a little subdued because of a reversal of his attempts to silence EllenBeth Wachs, a retired attorney and the Legal Affairs Coordinator and Vice-President for Atheists of Florida by bringing obviously trumped-up criminal charges against her.
Ms. Wachs had been facing over twenty years in prison if convicted on all the charges that Judd brought against her. She’d been arrested twice, in March and in May as part of retaliatory actions by Judd to suppress her activism in church/state separation matters. EllenBeth had brought public attention to Judd’s having improperly transferred certain public property to area churches. This outspoken evangelical Christian who has proudly stated that he is “on a mission from god,” though no god has so far validated that claim, keeps a Bible prominently displayed on his sheriff’s office desk.
The charges were ludicrous. Ms. Wachs was first arrested for “practicing law without a license” by using the letters “Esq.” – an honorific used by practicing and retired attorneys – with her signature on Freedom of Information Act requests to Judd asking for information about the illegal transfers of property. Well, I happen to know a little something about the use of the title “Esq.”, having used it myself on the cover of my book titled, “Conjuring” . I looked it up, something that the Holy Sheriff apparently didn’t do, and found that it is commonly used in the USA by lawyers – of both genders, retired or active. Elsewhere in the world, it either indicates that the person is one rank beneath a knight, or is an independent person, operating without association of any other agent or agency… I intended that last application for my own – quite casual – use of the honorific.
(Gee, I wonder if the Polk County black helicopter fleet will now appear over my home, with masked commandos sliding down ropes and onto the roof of my house…!)
Since Ms. Wachs was well within her rights – in all ways – to use this attachment, Sheriff Judd was obviously attempting to harass her, and had performed an illegal arrest, but he got away with it because – he’s a small-town Florida sheriff, I guess. Then EllenBeth was arrested at her home for a second time, based solely on a neighbor’s allegation that he and his child had heard “a sexual sound” (?) coming from her home some 48 days prior, but he apparently took that long to recall the event. She was now charged with “lewd and lascivious conduct in the presence of a minor,” a felony. I’m sure that Sheriff Judd was now – almost – in heaven, as we say.
Back to terra firma. The criminal charges against her have now been dismissed. Prosecutors, in their great wisdom, realized that it was not in their best interest to move forward to trial and they offered a settlement agreement that dismissed the felonies and averted convictions on all charges. The fact that they looked like petulant children might also have prompted them. With the charges now behind her, EllenBeth Wachs – who is also the President of the Humanists of Florida Association, is resuming her efforts to maintain the separation of church and state. She’s the lead plaintiff in a federal “prayer” lawsuit against Lakeland, Florida, and to stop any further religiously-motivated persecution against her, she’s brought suit against Sheriff Grady Judd in Federal District Court, asserting that his actions – which include the two arrests and a search of her home – violated her civil rights. Said she:
Mr. Judd's despicable actions against me shined a bright spotlight on the intolerance and bigotry that atheists face every day. The secular community around the world came out in force to support me and speak out against this persecution. [Judd’s] abuse of power angered and mobilized the atheist movement to action reminiscent of an earlier civil rights era.
SWIFT is happy to bring you this report, and we hope you’re as pleased as we are that one of our heroes is doing so well!
James Randi Esq.