A Visit to the Town that Banned Satan
Inglis, a little municipality in Florida, has come to be known as "The Town That Banned Satan," thanks to its feisty mayor, Carolyn Risher.
Inglis is one of those forgotten Florida towns. Bypassed by Interstates and turnpikes, it languishes too far from the vine to take advantage of any economic boom. Its economy is inconsequential; its residents are mostly working-class shrimp fishermen, commuters to the nearby power plant, or retirees. Few tourists visit Inglis.
Thus its 1,500 souls hardly merit a pixel on the big screen of Florida politics. Dozens of American flags line both sides of U.S. 19, leading north out of the nearest big town, Crystal River. The flags fade away long before the highway reaches the bridge spanning the ass-end of Florida's most shameful eco-disaster, the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Inglis starts halfway across the next bridge, in the middle of the Withlacoochee River.
There is a wide spot in the road where Inglis' one traffic light slows down enough cars to keep two gas stations and a citrus stand in business. A left at that light leads to a big, official-looking brown sign of the type identifying state parks and wildlife refuges. Some 40 years ago, says the sign, Elvis Presley made a movie in Inglis. The town's main drag was renamed Follow That Dream Parkway in honor of that event -- the most significant thing to ever happen in Inglis.
That is, until November, when the town's mayor decided to outlaw Satan.
When I turned down Follow That Dream Parkway, I already knew about the town's Elvis connection. I had called the Inglis town hall a few days before my visit to set up a meeting with the Satan-banning mayor, Carolyn Risher. When I explained I wanted to profile the town, Risher had excitedly told me all about Elvis' visit.
My first contact in Inglis, however, was town clerk Sally McCranie. Mayor Risher was busy when I called. "She's being interviewed by television news from New York," McCranie said. She was happy to tell me all about the Satan ban, however.
The mayor and town clerk had attended a Halloween weenie roast at their church, the Yankeetown Church of God. At the party, Pastor Rick Moore brought up the idea of banning Satan from town. "The mayor felt impelled by God," said McCranie, to participate in the ban; the next day, she drafted a proclamation on city letterhead.
The proclamation began, "Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens."
"She felt inspired to put the words on the paper, but God directed it," said McCranie. "She did the proclamation and signed it, and I signed it along with her."
Risher, McCranie, and Moore then performed a ceremony more appropriate to a Voodoo ritual than to an act of government. They made four photocopies of the proclamation, rolled them up and inserted them into holes drilled into the centers of 4-by-4 fence posts. The determined Christian soldiers then marched the posts onward to the main roads through town and planted the posts at the city limits.
"Then we prayed over them," said McCranie. "And that was it."
The action kicked off a media circus unlike anything seen in Inglis since Elvis. Area newspapers carried the story, which was picked up on the wire services and repeated by newspapers, radio and television stations across the country.
The media had been friendly, McCranie said. I wondered what New York news show would take enough interest in the little town to send a correspondent to Florida. "Some daily news show," she said. The interviewer, she said, was "Steve something." She found his card. "Steve Correll -- that's the guy she's talking to now."
Mayor Risher was facing cameras from Comedy Central's The Daily Show and had no clue they were in town to make fun of her.
A few hours after Correll had finished skewering Risher, she verified the story and explained her motive for exiling Satan from Inglis. "Satan is everywhere. We've had ungodly acts in town," said Risher, citing child abuse, drunkenness, and other generally despicable behavior as examples of Satan's busy hand in her small town.
"Kids have even taken hit lists to school," she said. "And we tried holding a teen dance, but we had fights on the very first night." After hearing Moore's plan, Risher said, "I was directed by the Holy Spirit to reclaim our town back for God, so I wrote and signed the proclamation."
She did not consider the political ramifications of the proclamation and didn't approach the town commission beforehand. "When God moves you to do something, you don't question it," she said, "You just don't question God."
A week after our phone conversation, I entered Inglis with some trepidation. I did not get struck by lightning while crossing the city limits; I took that as a good sign. However, controversy had arisen over the proclamation. One commissioner had questioned the mayor's legal right to publish such blatantly religious remarks on behalf of the city, and area newspapers had reported that Inglis resident Polly Bowser had begun threatening ACLU-assisted legal action. A petition calling for Risher's removal from office reputedly circulated among residents.
Ordinarily, mayors issue proclamations designating dates like "Clean Up Your Yard Day" or in formal support of "National Alcoholism Awareness Month." According to Risher, her proclamation was a ceremonial act, and her job includes serving as the ceremonial head of the town.
"I guess the commission could vote on it," she said. However, a proclamation doesn't carry the legislative weight of an ordinance; it doesn't bind Inglis' citizens to any particular rules or regulations. "It's like when we have an election, we do a proclamation, just to say we're holding an election. It just states a fact."
Attorneys had mixed feelings about the proclamation. After she told Inglis' attorney Norm Fugate about it, "he didn't think it was a problem," Risher said.
Seminole County municipal attorney Lonnie N. Groot explained that a proclamation "generally is an expression of intent, desire, or the general view or opinion of a jurisdiction. It's not a binding piece of legislation." However, he added, a town's charter could require proclamations to be adopted by the commission. "If it says that, then you might have an issue."
Prominent Florida civil rights attorney Steven G. Mason took a more critical view. Such an action on the part of the mayor could be a problem, especially if it influenced other local government philosophies and actions.
"It always comes down to definitions," said Mason. "Define Satan. What does that mean? There are any number of things people call Satanic," he pointed out, including a variety protected artistic expressions, along with some new age religions like Wicca. "Does this mean if someone does something the mayor doesn't like, they have to stop?"
Inglis Commissioner Richard Kellman opposed the proclamation, and was annoyed by a local newspaper's soft-pedaling of his opposition. "I don't agree with the opinions and declarations contained in the proclamation," he said. "And I don't agree that it was correct and appropriate for her to do it."
"I do believe that as private citizens officials have the freedom to express their opinions," he added. "But I don't believe it should have been put on town stationery."
I hoped the controversy had not made Risher and her fellow anti-Satanists media shy. I also wondered about the absence of 4-by-4 fence posts at the city limits. The mayor was "out running errands," said McCranie, who met me at town hall. She assured me Risher would return in the afternoon. The posts, she explained, had been "temporarily taken down. DOT made us move them while they mow," she said. "But we'll put them back up."
The media had been generally positive, but she and Risher were dazed by the controversy. "Never in any of our wildest dreams did we think it would make this raging fire," said McCranie. "It created quite a stir, but I think it's a good stir; 99 percent of the calls we've gotten have been positive."
No one seemed to take seriously the threat of impeachment. "There's a petition to have the mayor and myself removed, but I haven't seen any names on it," she said. "Besides, I read the first amendment, and it says nothing about this."
"Anyway, I think it has changed things," she said. "When you take a stand, it will have an effect. It has gotten some people angry, and it sure got Satan upset. But God always wins."
While waiting for Risher to return, I decided to look around town and talk to her pastor. Moore wasn't quite ready to receive visitors but would be in a half-hour or so, McCranie said. I filled the time driving down Follow That Dream Parkway, which cuts through the heart of Inglis, past the police station and town hall, before crossing the line into neighboring Yankeetown.
Outside Yankeetown, the parkway cuts a straight swath through slash pines, then scrub, and then salt marshes before finally terminating at a boat ramp. Beyond the ramp, the salt marshes reluctantly give way to turtle grass as the land slopes gradually into the gulf. The concrete cooling towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant loom in the distance, a landmark for the retirees motoring by, hunting trout and redfish.
It doesn't take long to explore the town; it takes up only a few square miles. Captain Inglis founded the settlement before the turn of the century, and a few of the older buildings still stand. They are made, Risher later told me, from rocks gathered from the surrounding woods.
However, most of Inglis appears to have sprung up in 1956, the year it incorporated -- and the year Ed Sullivan's cameras chopped Elvis off at the waist, sparing viewers the sight of his gyrating pelvis. It's a pretty town, in a quaint, fish-camp sort of way. Boston Whalers sit in the ubiquitous carports of nearly every Florida cinderblock home on every pine-shaded street. There are a handful of restaurants and bars, two hotels, and numerous bait and tackle shops.
"There are seven or eight churches in this little town," McCranie had told me. "It's always been a Christian-oriented town; people go to church here." And indeed there seems to be a church on every corner, most of them fundamentalist denominations like Pentecostal and Church of God.
Moore's house is only a few blocks from town hall. I had expected a buzzard-like, Bible-thumping old-time-religionist in a threadbare stovepipe suit and scrawny black tie, or perhaps one of the slicker types with a high pompadour, gold Rolex, and baby-soft, manicured hands.
Instead, a burly, bearded Pastor Moore met me at the door, cordially and firmly shook my hand, and apologized for not being able to see me right away. He had been surfing the Net all morning and had not yet gotten dressed when McCranie called to set up the interview, he said. It was hard to imagine the soft-spoken, affable fellow pounding a pulpit.
He seemed pleasantly surprised by my interest in his point of view. "The media doesn't seem to want to hear from the religious side," he said.
The Yankeetown Church of God was built in the 1960s. However, Moore has lived in Inglis for only two years. He grew up near Tampa and spent more than 22 years as a security policeman in the Air Force, followed by six years teaching ROTC in Ocala. "I have a college education, but it's in criminal justice, not theological," he said.
In early 1995, Moore "got a call" to the ministry and, he said, "gave my life over to God." In the Church of God, he explained, when one receives such a call, he talks to the pastor of his own church. "If he shares the opinion that you're called to the ministry, he works with you" through training and study. The clergyman-to-be then goes to the state office of the church for testing and interviews before receiving the first set of credentials. Moore became pastor of the Yankeetown congregation, which includes "56 people last Sunday."
The mayor's proclamation originated, Moore explained, after he read a book titled The God Chasers, which includes stories about gold-rush pastors who, Moore said, would "stake a claim for God" in their wild and woolly frontier towns.
"I felt impelled to do something like that," he continued. "In our country, there are many people who don't know Christ, don't go to church and don't know God. Inglis and Yankeetown are a microcosm of the country," subject to modern problems like drug abuse and families destroyed by alcoholism. "The local drug task force just arrested a man for having a meth lab in Inglis," said Moore.
"Those are the kinds of things we don't want in our community, and we are determined to fight back in the spiritual realm," he said. "And if you believe in the Bible, you believe there's a Satan, and it has been proven that the closer we are to God, the better off we are."
The mayor and commission were doing what they could in the material realm to fight those problems, too, Moore said. "You have to address these things in nature as well as spiritually," he said. "For non- churchgoers to say Biblical principles have no place is wrong, but it would be just as wrong to say that all we need is prayer."
The local controversy surprised him, he said. "We were all surprised because it was just done to create a (more moral) atmosphere," he said. "Someone got a notion that this imposed some religion on them, but there's no ordinance involved; it was just a symbolic action."
"As a Christian, (Risher) knows how to fight evil," Moore said. "But the only people the proclamation really says anything about would be the Satanists -- people who actually worship the devil -- and the mayor has publicly said that everyone, including them, has a right to their religion."
It was lunchtime when I left Moore's house, so I stopped in the busiest business in town, a barbecue joint on the highway. The barbecue was good, and the waitress too busy to talk. The folks at the surrounding tables just shrugged off questions about Risher.
Fortunately, the ol' boys at D&D Bait were a little more forthcoming. The owner, Dan Cummings, explained why not too many people would care to talk about the proclamation.
"When it first came out, there was some discussion in town," he said. "But people in this area are going about their own thing. It's kind of a non-story to us; I think it's a bigger story everywhere else than it is in town."
As to whether Risher was within her rights to issue the proclamation, Cummings said, "I think it's a lot of blowup over nothing. I'm a Christian myself, but I don't really know whether what she did was right or not."
"She's a loony tune," added a store patron, who preferred to be called, "just Joe."
Cummings added that "just Joe" is one of the best local fisherman in the area. "Joe doesn't think she had a right to say (the proclamation)," said Cummings. "But I think the response of the vast majority of people around here is, "Who cares?'"
Back at Town Hall, I almost bumped into a petite, well-dressed woman in her early 60s who swept the floor just inside the doorway. I wiped my feet on the doormat.
"You'd better wipe your feet," said the woman, smiling. "I hate this sand people track in here."
"Mayor Risher?" I asked.
"That's me," said the woman with the broom as she swept me into her office, where a collection of Elvis memorabilia hangs on the wall behind her desk. Elvis and Jesus share the rest of the office wall and shelf space with photos of family and friends. Risher was born a block from the city limits and has lived her entire 61 years in or near Inglis. Except for "a couple of years, when I was Baptist, I've been Church of God all my life," she said. "And I am just as active in church as I am as mayor." Her father was a county commissioner "for many years," she said. "I used to go with him to rallies, handing out cards and asking people to vote for him." After her five kids "were all grown and gone," said Risher, "I decided it was time to do something for my town." She ran twice for commissioner, getting defeated each time. "But I'm a fighter, and the third time I got the highest vote."
She served one term as commissioner, was re-elected and then decided to run for mayor. "I ran unopposed," she said. She continued to run unopposed for each of her five terms in the office because, Risher says, "In my heart I feel people have been very satisfied with how I've handled the position. They see me working every day, and I believe they feel I'm a good, moral person."
As is typical of such tiny towns, Inglis' mayor works hard for very little money. "I make $350 month," she said, chuckling. "I didn't run for the money; I figured out once that for the time I spend, I make about 45 cents an hour."
"I've been on live talk shows with London, England, and Anchorage, Alaska," Risher gushed. "Channel 8 and 13, Tampa radio, and Harper's magazine interviewed me. I've been on the radio in Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Detroit, on Fox 35 TV and radio stations in Massachusetts; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Seattle, Washington. And New York."
I wondered how she felt about her interview with The Daily Show.
"I was a little upset at The Daily Show," she said. Apparently, The Daily Show team let Risher assume it was just another news show from New York, although while the cameras were rolling, someone tipped off her pastor that the "news" show is really satirical.
"They left out the comedy part until we pressured them," said Risher. When the crew asked her to let them film over her shoulder as she read passages from the Bible, she refused. "I looked (Steven Correll) in the eye and said, "Steve, this isn't a comedy. I won't let you mock God and use me as an instrument to lampoon God's word.' That more or less ended the interview."
"I hear after they left here, they had someone dressed up in a Satan costume," she said ruefully. "They were paying people $20 to come up and tell him to leave town."
Risher agreed that most of the media have treated her well, however. "I was a willing vessel," she said. "Any time you tell someone what God has put on your heart to do, it makes you feel good that God gets that recognition."
Some interviewers had even suggested other mayors should take a similar stand, and Risher agrees. "Our currency says "In God we trust'; and our nation was founded on biblical principles," said Risher. "I think we should encourage other legislators to take the nation back for God. I'm asking God for a worldwide revival to bring people together -- to stand as one against the evil that causes all these bad things in the world, to love one another and to raise our kids in a Godly atmosphere."
Some people might question whether it was appropriate for a government leader to focus on Satan as the cause for some of those ills, I said. Perhaps they'd prefer government address issues like economics and education, rather than Satan.
"Everyone knows what Satan's done," Risher responded. "And to me, it doesn't take education or money to know how to treat your fellow man right."
Several weeks after my visit with Risher, the ACLU threatened to file suit in federal court against Inglis. After receiving notice of the pending litigation, the commission held a special meeting. They determined that the proclamation was solely an act of the mayor and not an official action of the commission.
According to Edinger, the commission "avoided the necessity for federal litigation" by voting to adopt a resolution declaring that the proclamation was not an act of government and of no force or effect.
"The rationale behind this was that the mayor has no authority to issue a proclamation without the vote of the City Council," said Edinger. The commission also required Risher to pay back the cost of copying the proclamation and to move the proclamation-bearing 4-by-4s to private property.
Inglis commissioner Gary Mosher commented that he "personally didn't have any problem with (the proclamation). I think it came out of inspiration, and it was in a positive direction." However, he explained, "Everything has to be approved by the commission. The commission pretty much runs the town, so until the ordinance is changed, the commission has to approve pretty much everything."
Risher took the commission's action as a light slap of the hand. "I will die stating that I did the right thing," she said. "They haven't convinced me that I have done anything wrong." Nor, she said, have they "impressed or convinced me that there's a separation of church and state."
Whether the controversy might affect Risher's chances for running unopposed when her next bid for re-election arrives remains to be seen. "I think they're content with what I've been doing," she added. "If not, there would be someone else running for this seat."
"Maybe next time there will be an opponent," Risher mused. "But I welcome a challenge. I'm a fighter; they won't bother me at all."
Risher believes the support she has received from the media and public provides evidence that she has done no wrong. When the commission met to decide otherwise, "The town hall overflowed with people that came to support me," she said. "There were cameras all over the place. CNN was here live the next morning, and people have called from all over the world; they thought it was awesome."
Risher claims that her callers have included community leaders who plan to take a similar stand against Satan. She happily advises those who want to "get on the bandwagon" to "pray first," and "if God tells you to do it, you should do it."
"My goal is to keep the flame burning," she added. "I expect there to be more battles," said Risher. "But God can give us the strength and power to deal with the opposition."
Not all of Florida's community leaders are as supportive as Risher believes. Mark Shuttleworth is the mayor of Lake Helen, a small Florida town with a commission the size of Inglis' and a population slightly more diverse. Churches, some dating before 1900, stand prominently on its tree-shaded corners.
Asked if he would consider hopping onto Risher's bandwagon, Shuttleworth answered flatly, "No."
"Every elected official has their own source of spiritual inspiration, but to use the government to impose that on a group of people is wrong," Shuttleworth explained. "Government should be careful to consider the feelings of individuals of all religions -- or non- religions, for that matter.
"We're supposed to consider all the people we represent and be considerate of their point of view," he added. "That's really what America is about."
However, he said, other government leaders might not hold that fundamental principal sacred. On a recent trip to Tallahassee, Shuttleworth heard Florida legislators "pushing something of the same kind of thing, the idea that every school should have to display a big plaque (on its campus) that will say "In God We Trust.'"
"I think that's a little more inclusive," he said, "but it still pushes the line a little bit. I think that's about as far as government could go before it steps on the toes of those with other viewpoints."
In our conversation, Pastor Moore brought up an interesting point: "After Sept. 11, the mayor organized prayer vigils and a candlelight service at Town Hall," he said. "Over 500 people came to that, and they all sang church songs as well as patriotic songs. The whole community was patting her on the back for that. But how is that different from this proclamation?"
I pointed out to Moore that the proclamation contains some pretty strong language; it mentions "citizens cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb" exercising their "authority over the devil in Jesus' name" to command "satanic and demonic forces" to leave town. Perhaps, I suggested, it's relatively easy to sing God Bless America and talk about evil in Afghanistan and in New York, but it's harder to take when evil is so righteously pointed out in your own back yard.
"That's exactly right," said Moore. "And that's what I call paying lip service to God."
One might admire Risher's faith. One can hardly find fault with her concern for the welfare of Inglis' citizens, or even her resolve to fight evil in "the spiritual realm." However, Risher has ignored one of the most basic tenets of American governance, that imperative to protect the rights and beliefs of individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or disbelief. Some Americans might call that "paying lip service" to the Constitution.
When Morris Sullivan isn't holy rolling his way through small towns, he's a freelancer who lives in DeLand, Fla.