CRAWFORDVILLE, FL (WTXL) - Tears were shed and accusations were made at a Commission Meeting in Wakulla County on Monday. Community members expressed deep, divided opinions to Commissioners and audience members at the meeting, all because of a controversial photo posted to Facebook.
The photo, which was taken and posted by Commission Chairperson Ralph Thomas, depicts what appears to be a group of Muslims praying on Mashes Sands Beach with the caption, "Walked up on this at Mashes Sands this evening! First time seeing this in Wakulla County."
Comments were left on the photo with very conflicting messages; some upset that the beach was being used for Muslim prayer, others accusing commenters of being xenophobic. Xenophobia is the, "intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries."
That outraged spilled over to Monday's commission meeting.
One speaker, Wakulla County Sheriff's Candidate Will Dance, stated to Commissioners, "I'm raising the question of whether or not a group of military aged Muslim men... are praying on our beach, well label me whatever you want... The reason I brought this up is because my daughters use that beach, my wife uses that beach and gentlemen, under Sharia Law, the cutoff shorts and tee-shirts... that my family wears on that beach are considered offensive under Sharia and any Muslim man may carry out what he feels is fit punishment. And I'm sorry but that type of behavior cannot happen here."
Another community member, Nikki Barnes, was upset that Commissioner Thomas posted the photo to begin with, "So for the life of me, I don't understand why the chair of our County Commission... would capture a picture of individuals praying at the beach, help[ing] create this mass negative hysteria on social media."
Community members weren't the only ones with divided opinions of the photo though. Commissioner Howard Kessler made the statement to his peers, "People have the freedom to be uncivil, we as elected officials don't have that."
This isn't Kessler's first time addressing difficult issues that began on Facebook. In August of this year, volunteer Code Enforcement Board Chairman Steve Cushman was placed on probation for making anti-Semitic comments online against Kessler.
The prayer photo also led commissioners to bring up a recent decision to add the phrase "In God We Trust" to the wall of their meeting room. Kessler was the only member to vote against the measure which passed in a 4 to 1 vote. The topic was brought up when Commissioner Jerry Moore asked Kessler, "Are you in favor of removing God from our sign behind us?"
To which Kessler replied, "I don't support 'In God We Trust' in our government. Do you get the difference between having religion in government and separation of church and state?" He then asked Moore which God he was referring to in the phrase adopted by the county, causing the argument between the two to end on the agreement that the phrase could refer to a God in any religion.
That wasn't the end though, Moore finished out the meeting by asking the Planning Department what the county would have to do put up Christmas lights, saying the county needed some Christmas spirit.
Since the meeting, WTXL has spoken with a woman who says her son was one of the men captured praying in the photo. Vanessa Moore says she was outraged when she discovered not only the photo but huge response to it. She is now worried about her son and his friends being targeted despite the fact that she thinks people of any religion should be allowed to pray where they want.
The response to this photo has divided the community and seems to be a miniature version of conversations being had on the national stage. Last month, Presidential candidate Ben Carson made a statement saying he didn't think a Muslim should be elected as president because Islam counters American values. And Donald Trump said he would be willing to appoint a Muslim-American cabinet member if he was elected after taking criticism for not correcting a person at a town hall meeting who said President Obama was a Muslim.