So maybe you’ve heard about this already. A few atheists decided to un-anoint a road in Polk County, Florida. But why did they do this? Are they just silly people with too much time on their hands? Actually, no. I was part of this group of atheists this Saturday, and I must say, everyone is getting this story wrong. Very wrong. Let me explain how…
First of all, I’d like to explain why we did this a year after the actual anointing. We didn’t learn about this situation until two weeks ago (at a CFI conference in Orlando), at which time the current leader of Tallahassee Atheists, John Porgal, got all angry (as he does sometimes) and wanted to do something about it. So he did a bit of organizing and asked the former leader (who’s still a member) of Tallahassee Atheists to write a press release and send it out. I participate in the group and I was at the conference, which is how I became a part of this event. Now, to why we did this at all…
This whole thing started many moons ago, when a group called Polk Under Prayer decided to anoint roads leading into Polk County. Polk Under Prayer (PUP) isn’t just some fringe group of wingnuts. This group was endorsed by the Mayor of Lakeland (the largest city in Polk), the Sheriff of the county, and the Superintendent of Polk County schools.
And this anointing situation is not the only crazy thing that Polk County officials have done. This Sheriff has been on a vendetta against EllenBeth Wachs, acting president of Atheists of Florida and current president of Humanists of Florida. This is the Sheriff that arrested her and raided her house in March 2011 for using the title “esquire” (she’s a retired lawyer) on request for information from the county government (they had given tax-payer property to local churches). In May, he arrested her a second time (for noises coming from her bedroom… I’m not kidding) and put her in solitary confinement for a week. Oh, and this is the county where an atheist (current president of Atheist of Florida) was arrested at a school board meeting (for protesting prayer during the meetings). Now, keep all of this in mind.
In March 2011, PUP anointed all the roads entering into the county. On the website of a local pastor (not part of PUP, but friends with one of the organizers of the anointing event) said this about the anointing of the roads:
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 bring them 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. If they will not submit to God’s way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county.
These actions and attitudes are why we did the un-anointing. We wanted people to be aware of what is happening in this county; in the fucking United States of America. The press release explained why we did this, however, this narrative apparently did not suit the local (and national) media. I guess the real story is too long and complicated. It also makes us look unquestionably like the only rational side.
The original press release follows:
FLORIDA ATHEISTS WELCOME ALL INTO POLK COUNTY
This Saturday, atheists are gathering on the Polk County line. The atheists will perform a counter-ritual in opposition to a ritual performed previously by the Polk Under Prayer campaign. In early 2010, Polk Under Prayer (also called “PUP”) – a group of Christian religious and political leaders in Polk County – ritually anointed all roads entering Polk County with a strip of oil.
According to Pastor Frank Smith of Frank Smith Ministries in Winter Haven, the oil ritual was intended to bring those in Polk County to a “full knowledge of Jesus Christ” and to ask “God to have angels inspect every vehicle that travels into or out of this county” and “if they will not submit to God’s way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county.”
Atheist and Mark Palmer, Executive Director of the Humanists of Florida Association, said, “To spread oil on the roads of Polk County and pray for the incarceration of all non-Christians is dangerous, bigoted, and un-American.” Secular leaders from the Humanists of Florida Association, the Atheists of Florida, the Tallahassee Atheists, the Freethinkers FSU, and more will gather at State Road 35 on the north border of Polk County. There they will anoint the road with pure water, because as Palmer said wryly, “oil and water don’t mix.” Palmer called the ritual a “symbolic gesture with two goals. The first is to welcome all people, regardless of their beliefs, to travel in and through Polk County, as is their legal right. And the second is to make Floridians aware of what religiously motivated political machines are doing in some rural counties. PUP is not just some fringe group of religious zealots, but is the major political force in Polk County.”
On March 1, 2011, PUP held an event at which Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, Polk County Schools superintendent Sherrie Nickell, and Polk County Grady Judd were the guests of honor. PUP Organizer, Richard Geringswald declared that these three “are coming on board with enthusiasm. Each representative touches three major factors in our county: Government, Education and Law Enforcement.” Below is pictured a billboard whereon these leaders endorse PUP with their names and their government offices.
Two days after this March 1st event, Sheriff Grady Judd arranged for the arrest and incarceration of EllenBeth Wachs, an atheist activist, after she made public records requests investigating Judd’s allegedly illegal transfers of county property to local churches. (Wachs now serves as President of the Humanists of Florida Association.)
This Saturday, Florida’s secular leaders intend to “condemn the bigoted actions of PUP and call on the good citizens of Polk County and its government leaders to remember that they are elected to support and represent all citizens of Polk county, not just the Christians.” Palmer continued, “We are Americans. We are Floridians. We must oppose religious favoritism and remember that we stand for liberty and justice for all.”
See this blog post (written by atheist activists) for details, screenshots, photographs and timelines of the past events described above:
See the original Facebook event for the March 1, 2011 PUP meeting, indicating the support of Polk county political leaders:
See the Frank Smith Ministries Blog for details of the original oil ritual: