FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, March 18, 2011ATHEISTS' PRAYER LAWSUIT MOVES FORWARD BUT CURIOUSLY TIMED ARREST CAUSES DELAY
Tampa, Fla. – Atheists of Florida won a first round on Tuesday against attorneys for the City of Lakeland who were attempting to throw out the atheists’ prayer lawsuit on technical grounds. In a 23 page order, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich ruled against the City of Lakeland and Mayor Gow Fields’ motion to dismiss the atheists’ claims that the Defendants violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the corresponding clause of the Florida Constitution.
The plaintiffs in the case are Atheists of Florida, Inc. and EllenBeth Wachs, who currently serves as the Vice-President of the organization. The defendants are the City of Lakeland and Mayor Gow Fields. The attorney for Atheists of Florida is Eric O. Husby, Esq., of the Law Office of Eric O. Husby, P.A. in Tampa, Florida.
The atheist non-profit organization filed the lawsuit last year in the United States District Court in Tampa demanding an end to the defendants’ unconstitutional practice of holding prayer rituals at the start of Lakeland City Commission meetings. The atheists reasonably asked that the unconstitutional and unfair practice, which for years was performed entirely by evangelical clergy, be replaced with a moment of seated silence, which would allow all persons in attendance to pray or not, as they saw fit.
As a litigation tactic, after Atheists of Florida formally complained about Lakeland’s prayer practices, the defendants included an invocation from a token representative of Lakeland’s Jewish community. Also as part of its avowed litigation strategy, the defendants created a city ordinance which attempted to make it appear that the prayer rituals would take place just prior to the beginning of the meeting, disingenuously attempting to create the illusion that the prayer was not part of the official agenda and therefore not subject to constitutional scrutiny. The defendants claimed in their motion to dismiss that the new city ordinance rendered the case “moot.” The judge saw through the defendants’ legal maneuvering and rejected the defendants’ “mootness” argument.
The defendants also argued that the atheists’ complaint “failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted.” However, the court again rejected the City and the Mayor’s arguments with respect to the Establishment Clause claims under both the U.S. and the Florida Constitutions.
The defendants also argued that the Mayor should be dismissed from the lawsuit altogether because he was “qualifiedly immune” from suit. The court again rejected defendants’ arguments, and the court refused to dismiss the suit against Mayor Fields in his “individual capacity.”
The court only granted the defendants’ motion on the atheists’ secondary claims (not involving the Florida and Federal Establishment Clauses), and the court found that technically the claim against Mayor Fields in his “official capacity” was the same as a claim against the City itself.
Several days before Wachs was to be questioned in her deposition by the city’s attorneys in the prayer lawsuit, Wachs, a retired attorney, was served with a curiously-timed warrant and abruptly arrested for allegedly "misrepresenting self as qualified to practice law". On March 3, over a dozen sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officials, many garbed in SWAT style para-military gear, descended on her home in unmarked vehicles, arrested Ms. Wachs, and searched her home. Two bearded officials in SWAT gear held her two retail employees at gunpoint and for several hours unidentified agents proceeded to systematically tear apart her house, including searching her cars and employees’ cars and belongings. Agents seized Wachs’ personal and business computers, cell phone, documents and other items.
Noteworthy, among the three identified in the arrest affidavit was Mayor Gow Fields, one of the named defendants in Ms. Wachs’ prayer lawsuit. The other two included an employee of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Ann Gibson, and Stacy Butterfield, a board member of the homeowner’s association where Wachs resides. Butterfield is employed at the County Clerk’s Office where Gibson had been previously employed.
Ms. Wachs, a Polk County resident, had recently requested information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from Judd’s Sheriff’s office concerning tax-payer property and funds involved with his media publicized gifting of jail basketball goals to eight area churches. Evidence obtained by the request, which had been provided by Gibson, showed that the sheriff’s office credit card was used in Judd’s project. During the press event, Judd connected the sports gifts with December’s holiday season referring to himself as a “Grinch” to jail inmates but “Santa” to the churches. Not surprisingly, agents searching Ms. Wachs’ home seized all inflammatory documents against Judd including copies of the sheriff’s office credit card receipts.
Ms. Wachs’ deposition in the prayer lawsuit, which had been scheduled for March 9, had to be delayed as a result of the havoc caused by the ill-timed arrest, search and seizure of her property.
Court order ... http://www.scribd.com/doc/50868783/Athiests-Court-Order
Atheists of Florida
PO Box 130753
Tampa, FL 33681
Atheists of Florida, a non-profit educational corporation founded in 1992, serves the needs of a significant and growing community of atheists in Florida. As a civil rights minority, our members are tireless advocates for the constitutional rights afforded to them and all Americans. We encourage efforts to foster a fully inclusive sense of community, mutual understanding and respect.
We have a new Legal Defense Fund specifically set up to fight the horrific injustice occurring in Imperial Polk County. Please give what you can and then give some more. EllenBeth and John were forced to give up their freedom in the fight for church/state separation. http://atheistsofflorida.org/legaldefense.htm