Member of Atheists of Florida Arrested for Disrupting School Board’s Prayer

You have to hand it to the Atheists of Florida: They don’t disappear when the initial media spotlight goes away.

They’re still pushing to find out whether Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd did something illegal when he removed basketball hoops from a local prison and gave them to a local church:

Now the group wants more records, including documents detailing which employees were assigned to the project, how many hours they worked on it and which agency vehicles were used to move the basketball goals.

The sheriff ordered the basketball goals removed, saying “going to jail isn’t fun and games.”

The atheist group says it was unconstitutional to give the goals to churches.

In addition, last month, they were kicked out of a Cape Coral City Council meeting for wearing shirts reading “One Nation, Indivisible.”

And now, John Kieffer, a member of the group, has been arrested for causing a “disturbance during a pre-meeting prayer at today’s Polk County School Board meeting.”

Before the meeting began, the man began causing a disturbance, [Bartow Sgt. David] Wyant said. After a warning, the man continued to disrupt a pre-meeting prayer and was removed from the meeting.

The article doesn’t mention what exactly Kieffer did… or why there were prayers taking place at the school board meeting in the first place.

The school board will likely say the prayer is legal because it’s taking place before the official meeting — but, similarly, no one should be arrested for “disorderly conduct” for a “disruption” taking place before a meeting, either.

(Thanks to Jaime for the link!)

***Update***: Well, now we know what Keiffer yelled out:

Kieffer stood near School Board members while Wachs took photographs during the prayer before the meeting began. He also spoke as the minister was speaking.

After the invocation, he was rebuked by board member Frank O’Reilly for the disruption.

Wyant said that is when Kieffer yelled, “Prayer has no place in government! Prayer has no place in government!”

Murphy asked Bartow police Officers Jason Griffith and Julio Pagan to remove Kieffer from the auditorium.

Kieffer braced himself against the officers as they dragged him out of the room, Wyant said.

After board Chairman Kay Fields told Kieffer to leave, he said he wasn’t violating any laws because the meeting hadn’t officially started.

“It has now,” Fields said, and she slammed down her gavel.


  • WishinItWas

    cant they pray on their own in the car before the meeting?

  • Nicole

    To be fair, he did cause a disturbance. I probably would have waited until the prayer was finished, or objected before it began. It just seems impolite to interupt someone while they are speaking, even if they are praying. But getting him arrested is a bit of an over-reaction.

    Also, what is the end of that first line supposed to be? It appears to have been cut off.

  • Patrick

    It seems this was rather carefully calculated to make a point – the board has been put in a position where they must either admit they were praying during an official government meeting, or they caused to have an individual arrested for interrupting someone else’s conversation. Pretty clever, I’d say. I’d like to see where this goes.

  • ACN

    It seems this was rather carefully calculated to make a point – the board has been put in a position where they must either admit they were praying during an official government meeting, or they caused to have an individual arrested for interrupting someone else’s conversation. Pretty clever, I’d say. I’d like to see where this goes.

    My thoughts exactly. I thought it was well played on their part.

  • http://chandays.blogspot.com Larry Meredith

    They don’t disappear when the .

    They’re still pushing to find out…

    er… am I missing something here?

  • HumanistDad

    @Nicole – I understand you want to be polite but protesting WHILE the prayer is being said is the exact right time to do so because THAT is when you are having your rights infringed upon.

  • Daniel

    Am I the only one chuckling that Officer Pagan removed the Atheist from the Christian prayer session?

    I too can’t wait to see the next step – which I assume is to bring wrongful arrest charges to bear.

  • http://girlofthegaps.blogspot.com/ Nicole Schrand

    @Nicole (that other Nicole, I’m not talking to myself…): Sure, it’s impolite, but being impolite isn’t illegal. As Patrick said, they can have their cake, or they can eat it, but they can’t be both justified in arresting Keiffer as well as be respecting the separation of church and state.

    I expect they’ll back down on the arrest, since backing down on the separation issue would bring the arrest into question in any event.

  • http://chandays.blogspot.com Larry Meredith

    I agree with Nicole. The repeated shouting over people like this just has a vibe that doesn’t fit well with me. If you want to get prayer removed, you should do it legally. Shouting over people like this just makes you look crazy. It’s like the guy who shouted “You Lie!” to Obama or the woman who shouted “Except Obama, except Obama! Help us Jesus!” when the senate was quoting the constitution.

    America is supposed to be a country that follows the rule of law. You’re supposed to be civilized… Being disruptive like this doesn’t feel civilized at all.

  • JD

    Sounds like they’re playing fast and loose with when the meeting is to their advantage.

  • http://www.jaytheatheist.blogspot.com/ JayTheAtheist

    So in reading the disclaimer, any citizen may offer an invocation. This tells me that an Imam as well as a follower from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may offer an invocation.

    It seems to me if they wish to be unreasonable then unreasonable should be allowed for all. I think turning their pre-meeting into a Mardi Gras of invocations – by private citizens of course – would bring the danger of their actions into perspective for them.

    -J

  • http://bestlittlestudio.com James

    Hemant,
    You should really follow Carlos Miller, he is a photography activist, and the AoF have been on there a couple of times because they tape their interactions. And usually get arrested for the taping.

    http://carlosmiller.com

    I agree with Patrick, well played AoF, well played.

  • http://thishollowearth.wordpress.com/ Victor

    So … people are supposed to shout at town hall meetings, but get arrested if they shout before school board meetings. I’ve gotta start writing this stuff down. It gets confusing.

  • coyotenose

    Thirded or Fourthed. I don’t know that AoF intended an arrest or removal, but they’ve put the school board in a legally untenable place. Lawsuit and publicity time!

  • Stephen P

    It just seems impolite to interupt someone while they are speaking, even if they are praying.

    If this was the first attempt of AoF to protest against prayer in this particular board’s meetings I’m inclined to agree with you. Always start politely. But if they have previously protested in a more circumspect fashion and been ignored, I’d say they were justified in raising the stakes a little.

  • ManaCostly

    When the SHIT hits the fan. Not that hard to type actually.

    If you want to use the saying then use it in all its glory. Dont shy away at the last second. If you really didn’t want to type “SHIT” you could have just used a different way to get the point across without frustrating people.

  • http://www.StuffAmericansHate.com Joe

    It hurts me that elected officials can be so ignorant of the law.

    There really should be a test required to vote and run for office. I’m sick of complete and utter morons having a say in government.

  • http://www.jaytheatheist.blogspot.com/ JayTheAtheist

    I think for most, the problem is not that they are ignorant of the law but rather they consider the “law of their faith” to be higher.

    Absurd that they often intertwine patriotism and religion.

    -J

  • cat

    @Larry Meredith, I disagree that the cases are comparable. Congress was actually in session during the outbursts you mention. The US Congress has very strict procedural rules about who speaks when and for how long when Congress is in session. This School board meeting was not in session. They were specifically and purposefully not in session. They do this to try and find a loop hole with their own borderline illegal activity. Which means that Kieffer’s outburst was legal. And, come on, honestly, peaceful verbal disruption is not likely to be anything beyond a regulatory violation even if the school board had been in session. The level of illegality there is on par with mild speeding while driving or jay walking.

    Also, I can’t see how interupting is more rude than having someone arrested.

  • Jen

    They pray at my school board meetings (in Michigan) and nobody ever says anything. I’ve always thought it a bit questionable but is it actually illegal to do so? They begin every meeting with a prayer.

  • http://defendingreason.wordpress.com/ Ben

    but, similarly, no one should be arrested for “disorderly conduct” for a “disruption” taking place before a meeting, either.

    I think this is a very pertinent point and could be the basis for an unlawful detainment lawsuit. If the meeting hadn’t started, then there was nothing official to disrupt. Being detained and removed for disrupting a non-official religious activity is surely illegal in itself and violation of separation of church and state.

  • http://chandays.blogspot.com Larry Meredith

    @cat I’m not talking about the legal aspects of it. I understand that the outbursts I mentioned were not done on the same legal grounds as Kieffer. It’s more about being civilized and respectful as opposed to being disruptive in a large organized grouped event. While shouting out repeatedly like Kieffer did is legally okay, and some could even say patriotic in exercising his rights, it still holds the same level of arrogant disrespect for the way civilized people should conduct themselves. The man who shouted “you lie” was being peaceful. So was the woman who shouted “except obama”. They weren’t hurting anyone, just verbally expressing their opinion.

    Obviously having Kieffer illegally arrested was also rude, but two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s just childish to excuse his actions by saying “well what they did was even MORE rude!” Both were doing something wrong, and both need to own up to that.

  • Alex

    Ok, where do we send money for a defense fund? Actually maybe FFRF or some other organization needs to setup a defense fund that bails out and defends individuals arrested for asserting their rights at public meetings. Maybe it could help us knowing that there is some financial and legal support available if you get lead away in handcuffs for defending your rights.

  • Jagyr

    Jesus Christ, are we seriously having a tone discussion here?

    Why did those black folks have to be so rude?. Couldn’t they have just been civilized and asked politely if they could sit at the front of the bus?

  • Kristi

    Was it rude? Yes. Was it disruptive? Yes it was. Was it uncivilized? Absolutely. Could it have been done peacefully? Maybe, but I doubt it.

    Many people just don’t understand that one has to stand up, holler, and do whatever they can to get those people’s attention. Does anyone realize that if this guy would have sat quiet until they were through with begging their invisible man and then said something peacefully it would have been blown off and ignored.

    I think the timing they had was great.

    “So was it AFTER the meeting had started sir?”

    “Oh yes yes! He disrupted the meeting!”

    “Why were you praying during an official meeting anyway?”

    “Oh wait, no, the meeting was ABOUT to be started.”

    “Then really he did not disrupt a meeting and there was no legal grounds for his arrest then?”

    “……uh…”

    Love it. Good job AoF!

  • http://www.atheistsofflorida.org EllenBeth Wachs

    Hi all! Just wanted to pop in and say thank you so much for the support! John cannot comment for obvious reasons due to the pending criminal charges. I, however, can.

    Please be the good skeptics that I know you all are and do not believe everything that you read. Sometimes, the press actually gets it wrong.

    The interesting thing is – John did nothing that I didn’t do but was arrested and I was not.

    What was different between us?
    He was wearing that damn “One Nation Indivisible” Atheists of Florida t-shirt.

    We gladly will accept donations to our legal fund and once I get the trespass against me removed, I will be going back to inform the School Board that I will be starting SSA chapters in the High Schools, lol.

    http://atheistsofflorida.org/donate.html

  • HailScience

    According to their local Fox affiliate, Kieffer was taken to jail after being held for an hour at the school.

    Upon being booked, a suspicious little white pill was found on his person for which he could not produce a prescription.

    As I commented at the article there, I wonder at which point in the arrest did that little white pill appear.

    I find it highly doubtful that a trained former attorney and a willful mature companion would show up to a volatile situation to protest, knowing the stakes, but also carrying suspicious drugs.

    I don’t know, maybe the guy was that dumb. But right now it seems unlikely the pill began its day in Kieffer’s private possession.

    I hope he gets a drug test POST HASTE if he is innocent of possession.

  • John W

    John Kieffer was entirely justified in protesting about religion in government it has no place there.
    Remember the pledge of allegiance never had any reference to god in the original version it was only changed in 1956 during the McCarthy paranoia.
    Do you really need religious crazies like Rick(America belongs to God)Santorum running things.
    John Kieffer fought for his country and that includes freedom of expression.

  • Raven

    Larry Meridith, I am a bit late to this particular party, but I have been closely following the cases in Polk County. I would like to correct one error in your comments. You seem to believe that John Kieffer shouted DURING the “pre-meeting” prayer. That is incorrect. John Kieffer and EllenBeth Wachs only spoke quietly to each other while the minister was leading his prayer at the public school board meeting. The shouting started after the prayer ended when one of the school board members shouted at John Kieffer, then several audience members joined in also shouting at John Kieffer. At that point, yes, he did shout back as police were dragging him from the room. Wouldn’t you?

  • http://www.colleenpatriciawilliams.com Colleen

    Wow!! Where the Hell is the ACLU? If this is not a blatantly unConstitutional move, I don’t know what else it could be!
    This is just scary. Atheists have a right to not believe. What the HELL has happened to my America? We have rapidly devolved. And the behavior of these “Christians” is very UNChristian, but I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has managed to find “Thou shalt not murder… except if they disagree with you” in that book of theirs.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/6BD2OSZQYFJUARMTC6BTF3V73Y Pat

       While I agree with the sentiment of the protesters, I disagree with the tactic. These types of “disruptions” simply fire anti-atheist sentiment. And, as interrupting a speaker or trying to shout over someone is generally seen as rude, a better tactic would perhaps have been to hold up signs during the prayer, or to be recognized and say something I call the “Atheist’s Prayer”: ”

      Fellow Americans, let us join together to hope and work for
      the day when our government will return to the ideals of our founders. When no
      religious observation, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu would be considered
      appropriate at a public meeting. Let us envision the day when public officials
      no longer see it as appropriate or virtuous to insult citizens who do not share
      their religious belief by officially sanctioning their own faith in public
      forums. We ask this in the name of Thomas Jefferson and the United States
      Constitution.”

  • JG

    Well, he’s right. Prayer has no place in government.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JohnAKieffer John Kieffer

    Thanks for posting this story. 

    BTW, the photo in the story above is of another Atheists of Florida member, Edward Gollobith, who was not removed from the Cape Coral city government meeting (he did as the mayor instructed, kept his shirt covered up, until the issue was voted on, — after I was removed and voted back in to speak – that we could wear the shirt); nor was Gollobith involved with the Polk County School Board arrest.

    For more information on both of these stories, please refer to these links:

    Cape Coral (incident: 1/24/2011; removed by police during meeting for wearing atheist shirt; not arrested)

    http://free2think.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=1390

    Polk County School Board (incident: 2/22/2011; wore same atheist shirt; arrested by police BEFORE meeting started; charged with 1. disorderly conduct; 2. disrupting school/religious/other lawful assembly; and 3. resisting arrest w/o violence)

    http://free2think.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=1414

    BTW, re: Polk County case, this is apparently pretty important to someone/s given that the State Attorney for Polk County has assigned his two top high profile prosecutors to prosecute these misdemeanor charges.  I had been scheduled for trial this week (4/23/2012), which has now been postponed until a hearing on May 31, 2012.

    Current docket and other trial info can be attained at https://www2.myfloridacounty.com/ccm/do/index?county=53

    Again, thank you for your interest and support.  Any donations to my legal defense are very much appreciated as I am paying for my attorney’s fees from my personal savings.

    Donation link is on my bio page:

    http://free2think.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=1214

    John Kieffer


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