Church/state separation activist David Suhor has been charged with resisting arrest and trespassing after he protested a meeting of the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida because of their Christian prayers.
Suhor, who calls himself a Satanist, has long been an activist fighting against Christian-only prayers at public meetings. If he sees that a government agency that has invocations at meetings isn’t including non-Christians in the rotation, he’ll ask to deliver one and then make it as provocative as possible — like in 2014, when he gave a wildly entertaining Satanic prayer at a meeting of the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners. In 2015, when then Escambia County School Board wouldn’t let him deliver an invocation at all, he set up a rug on the floor while someone else gave the prayer and chanted over the speaker… before delivering his own Satanic prayer during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Is he rude? Yeah, probably. But his point is that Christianity should never be the default religion of choice at government meetings — and he’s absolutely right about that.
So what the hell did he do at a meeting of the Utilities Authority? Suhor was upset that they always had generic religious invocations and was never allowed to deliver one himself. (Why did a utilities board need a prayer during meetings, you ask? Because Florida. That’s why.)
After Suhor complained about his rejection, the board members responded by moving the invocation to before the meeting was officially called to order. As if that made it perfectly legal.
Suhor called their bluff. If the meeting didn’t officially start until after the prayer, then interrupting the prayer wasn’t illegal since he wasn’t getting in the way of government business.
It was sneaky. And clever. And kind of a dick move.
But that’s what he did last August, chanting “Hare Krishna” just before the prayers began.
No one stopped him for several minutes. But when it was time for the commissioners to pray, they asked him to stop. He refused, arguing that the meeting hadn’t started yet. And then everything descended into chaos.
In that video, you see a security guard approach Suhor and ask him to leave because he’s disrupting the meeting (even though the meeting hasn’t technically started). The cop attempts to forcibly move him away since he’s causing a “disturbance” and Suhor stands his ground. (At one point, the cop breaks out pepper spray but doesn’t use it.)
Suhor says he’ll stop chanting as soon as the meeting is called to order. So that’s what the commissioners do, and Suhor calmly sits down… but then, almost immediately, the commissioners recess for prayer. (Which means they started the meeting… then took a break to pray.)Since the meeting isn’t officially taking place, Suhor gets back up to chant once again. The county’s attorney asks him to leave because he’s creating a disturbance, and this time, Suhor is escorted out of the room for good. (He wasn’t allowed back in for the public comments part of the meeting, either.)
This past February, Suhor attended another one of their meetings.
This time, people noticed that he was there and a cop spoke to him about his intentions. Suhor said he planned to chant during the prayers once again… and then proceeded to do just that. When he was asked to leave, he refused to do it. And when the cop tried removing him from the room, Suhor didn’t go quietly.
He was later charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.
Yesterday, a judge finally ruled on the matter, saying that Suhor was guilty on both counts. (The official order is not yet available.)
According to Suhor:
I got more than minimum sentence, costing me $700+, 3 months probation, 25 hours community service, a criminal record. She (judge) also gave ECUA license to silence the audience before the meeting begins, under threat of arrest. And their establishment clause and prayer violations will continue unabated.
He’s now raising funds to cover his costs while deciding whether or not to appeal.
I know there’s a lot going on in this story, but don’t lose site of what this is really all about: A government agency is praying at every meeting without allowing a non-Christian to deliver an invocation himself. They attempted to use a loophole to get around this, then punished the man who made a mockery of the prayers.
Their own actions show that prayer really is a part of their meetings — even if they don’t “technically” begin until after the invocation — and a potential violation of the law. As Suhor told me, “ECUA is trying to walk a fine line on when their meeting really starts. They convinced the judge that for their purposes, the ‘process’ of starting their prayer is as good as calling the meeting to order. At this time, no other prayers will be tolerated.”
None of this would have happened if these officials just got to work instead of asking God for help keeping the lights on.
Suhor says any extra money he raises from his fundraiser will be used as a “seed to sue ECUA for civil rights including religious censorship, unlawful arrest and curbing free speech.”
I did not take these actions for myself, but simply to convince ECUA to either 1) embrace their illegal invocations and allow them to see the light of day, or 2) to stop ignoring the various legal failings of their invocation process. Unfortunately, this is part for the course in the deep south.
You can support his efforts here.
***Update***: According to video from the February meeting, the chair of the board, who said she asked Suhor to leave “several times” (as parroted by the judge), doesn’t even ask him to leave even once. Which would make the trespassing charge bogus… Suhor told me his attorney didn’t mention that in the trial, despite his urging. All the more reason, he says, for a new trial.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)