LAKELAND, Fla. -- A group of atheists in Polk County have scrubbed away a holy oil blessing placed on a local highway a year ago by a religious group.
Armed with brooms, mops and "unholy water," the atheists gathered Saturday to symbolically clean up the holy oil that a group called Polk Under Prayer (PUP) spread on Highway 98 near the Pasco-Polk county line last year, Tampa-St. Petersburg TV station Bay News 9 reported.
"We come in peace,” Humanists of Florida (HFA) director Mark Palmer shouted to crowd, according to News 9. “Now that's normally what aliens say when they visit a new planet, but we're not aliens, we're atheists!"
Palmer told CBS Tampa that the group’s major issue was with a billboard posted nearby by the Christian Churches of Polk County and PUP that boldly displays photos of Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, Polk County School Board Superintendent Dr. Sherrie Nickell and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
“If it were just some church blessing a road, that’s not a big deal – churches can do what they want,” Palmer told the station. “The point of [the demonstration] was to protest the co-mingling of church and state.”
Another HFA official, its president, Ellen Beth Wachs, told CBS Tampa that “We simply want Polk County to realize that … there are many different types of world views out there, and they need to open county borders to all of the people.
'Other types of faith'
“We understand that Christians have their way of life, and we’re not trying to take it away from them,” Wachs added. “But they need to realize that there are many other types of faith, and people of non-faith as well.”
Scott Wilder, director of communications for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, told CBS Tampa that Sheriff Judd and other officials were not involved with the highway blessing ceremony.
“None of them had anything to do with it – the sheriff, the mayor, or the superintendent,” he emphasized.
PUP director Richard Geringswald told the station that his group had been “praying for that entryway in to the city, that God would protect us from evildoers, mainly the drug crowd, that they would be dissuaded to come in to the county.".
But HFA officials said it makes them feel unwelcome.
"It sends a very bad signal to everyone in Polk County, and (anyone) who travels through Polk County who doesn't happen to be Christian,” Palmer told Bay News 9, “This event is not about atheist rights; this is about welcoming everybody into Polk County."
According to the station, the groups have maintained an ongoing feud, with the atheists also unhappy with prayer bricks engraved with Psalm 37 that PUP members buried along Interstate 4 and various other roadways leading in to the county.
“Mainly, we want this to be a safe haven for folks who want to raise their families,” PUP’s Geringswald told WFTS-TV. “Asking God’s protection from ne’er do wells and evil doers.”
The website for Frank Smith Ministries, which took part in the 2011 holy oil ceremony, explained how the blessing administered by PUP would work.
“Its objective is to place Holy Angels at all roads that lead into or out of Polk County,” the blog post said. “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 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.”
The post added, “If they will not submit to God’s way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county.”
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