Church/state separation activist David Suhor has been acquitted of all charges stemming from incidents that occurred last year after he protested a meeting of the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida due to their Christian prayers and was subsequently charged with resisting arrest and trespassing.
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 the 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 why was he at a meeting of the Utilities Authority in August of 2017? Suhor was upset that they always had generic religious invocations and that he 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… though, for all intents and purposes, it was still part of the meeting. (You can’t just have a prayer that ends with, “And the meeting starts… NOW!”)
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, a security guard approached Suhor and asked him to leave because he was disrupting the meeting (even though the meeting hadn’t technically started). The cop attempted to forcibly move him away since he was causing a “disturbance” but Suhor stood his ground. (At one point, the cop broke out pepper spray but didn’t use it.)
Suhor said he would stop chanting as soon as the meeting was called to order. So that’s what the commissioners did, and Suhor calmly sat down… but then, almost immediately, the commissioners recessed for prayer. (So they started the meeting… then took a break to pray.)Since the meeting wasn’t officially taking place anymore, Suhor got back up to chant once again. The county’s attorney asked him to leave because he was creating a disturbance, and this time, Suhor was escorted out of the room for good. (He wasn’t allowed back in for the public comments part of the meeting, either.)
A few months later, in February of 2018, 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.
Last August, a judge ruled that Suhor was guilty on both counts. The decision cost him nearly $400, three months of probation, 25 hours of community service, and — worst of all — gave him a criminal record. Suhor told me that the judge also gave the ECUA license to silence the audience before meetings began (“under threat of arrest”). The judge didn’t stop their Christian prayers, either.
First Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jan Shackelford reversed Suhor’s conviction in Escambia County Court, ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Suhor of the two misdemeanors.
You can’t arrest someone for trespassing, the judge said, just because you asked him to leave and he didn’t. Furthermore, Florida law allows someone to peacefully resist arrest.
Suhor isn’t fully satisfied, though.
Suhor said he’s still barred from ECUA property and feels like he’ll have to sue to get his free speech rights recognized.
“You can’t bar someone from a public meeting because you don’t like what they have to say,” Suhor said. “It’s been a year of that. Plus, twice they’ve had me physically escorted from the room because they didn’t want me to exercise my right to pray before the meeting — the same thing that they’re doing.”
He’s now raising more funds to sue “for wrongful and malicious arrest and violation of my free expression and free speech rights.”
Suhor also told me that some of that Pensacola News Journal article is misleading. ECUA chairwoman Lois Benson didn’t ask him to leave the meeting, as the article says. “She simply told the rent a cop to remove me,” said Suhor. Benson also is quoted as saying Suhor was “disruptive in a public meeting” — but the whole reason he protested was because the meeting had not officially begun. So she’s basically lying about his motivations.
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 used 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.
None of this would have happened if these officials just got to work instead of asking God for help keeping the lights on.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)