Atheist Activist Wachs Has No Plans to Back Down


LAKELAND | She has been urged to kill herself and told she deserves to be boiled in oil or hung from a tree. Strangers have publicly suggested she leave Polk County.

EllenBeth Wachs, an atheist activist, acknowledges that she may be Polk County’s most reviled resident, yet she has no plans to flee.

“Where is a vocal activist needed most?” Wachs said. “This is ground zero of religious intolerance. This is the new Selma, Ala., for civil rights for atheists.”

Wachs, legal coordinator for Atheists of Florida, has gone from obscurity to notoriety in the past year as her group sued the Lakeland City Commission over public prayers, protested invocations before Polk County School Board meetings and challenged Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd’s donation of basketball goals from the county jail to a church.

Since March, Wachs (pronounced “wax”) has been arrested on charges of unlawfully practicing law and simulating a sex act in the presence of a child. The unusual circumstances of those arrests have prompted some in Polk County to accuse Judd’s office of retaliation, a contention Wachs’ lawyer made in a federal lawsuit filed June 24. (She also faces a charge of marijuana possession.)

Newspaper articles about Wachs draw hundreds of online comments, with some readers calling her “witch,” “loon,” “pervert” and “a useless human being.”

Wachs said she has received threatening letters and e-mails. She said her home and car have been vandalized, and a driver, apparently reacting to her “Atheists of Florida” bumper sticker, attempted to run her off the road.