As rising temperatures herald the flashpoint between naturists and Christian protesters at a Wisconsin nude beach, the attorney of one prominent demonstrator claims the state is throwing its ammunition on the side of the naturists in the annual tug of war over the state-owned area known for public sex and drug use.
Last week, Pastor Ralph Ovadal with Wisconsin Christians United was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine plus court
costs as penalty for his conviction earlier this year of disorderly conduct while preaching to a beachgoer at Mazo Beach in Dane County. Circuit Court Judge Paul Higginbotham ruled Ovadal “breached the peace,” “verbally attacked a lone woman” and “participated in physical intimidation.”
Ovadal’s conviction stems from an incident last summer in the parking lot of the beach, a clothing-optional area on the Wisconsin River within a state-owned wildlife unit managed by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. According to trial testimony, naturist Nancy Erickson
loudly directed obscene expletives at one of the Christian protesters who had offered her a salvation tract. Erickson then pulled up her tank top in a threat to expose herself and performed a suggestive, shimmying dance directed at Ovadal. In response, the pastor preached to Erickson and told her she was “acting like a whore.” While Erickson proceeded to unload her belongings from her car Ovadal continued calling for her to repent and compared her behavior to that of a “harlot,” “Jezebel” and “barnyard animal.”
According to Ovadal, Erickson was “unconcerned” about his preaching, but became upset when one of her dogs ran off. After “about six minutes,” according to Ovadal, she left for the beach to retrieve the animal. She did not file a complaint against Ovadal.
In his written decision, Judge Higginbotham ruled, “By relying on terms such as ‘whore,’ ‘harlot’ and ‘Jezebel’ to describe Erickson, the defendant exited the protective confines of the First Amendment and exposed himself to state prosecution.” Higginbotham cited Wisconsin Statute 947.01, which provides:
“Whoever, in a public or private place, engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous,
unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct tends to cause or provokes a disturbance is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.”
Ovadal maintains two DNR wardens witnessed the encounter but did not intervene, tell him to stop or cite him. According to DNR records, a warden nearly six weeks later contacted Erickson to see if she would give a statement about the incident. Erickson agreed even though she “stated she does not remember it all.” Basing its case on Erickson’s testimony, the state subsequently charged Ovadal. Contrary to local published reports, the state was the plaintiff in the case, not Erickson.
“This was all well-orchestrated,” James Donohoo, Ovadal’s attorney, told WorldNetDaily. “They don’t like Pastor Ovadal. The DNR saw an
opportunity to get him charged. The state sought out this woman – and weeks later.”
“If DNR made any mistake, it was in not intervening at the time,” DNR attorney Michael Lutz told WND. “[The wardens] chose to record the evidence and consult with the district attorney as to whether they should file charges, like any other case.”
Donohoo further maintains Judge Higginbotham exhibited prejudice against Ovadal throughout the progression of the
case, and filed a motion demanding the judge recuse himself. The motion cites both procedural examples and quotes
language in Higginbotham’s decision in arguing the court was not neutral and detached, and failed to treat the defendant fairly. Among procedural examples, Donohoo claims Higginbotham relied on information outside the trial record, and twisted and manipulated evidence to support the prosecution. Donohoo also takes issue with the following excerpts of Higginbotham’s
decision, which he maintains reflects bias:
- “In bringing his truculent message to the ‘wicked,’ Ovadal and his coterie have pushed the limits of protected speech.”
- “Ovadal and his clique’s pronouncements, driven by deep-seated and somewhat captious convictions, generated an array of reactions from beach users – few of which, if any, positive.”
- “If a group of angry fundamentalists surrounding an individual is not intimidating, the court is unsure what is.”
“I was shocked,” Donohoo told WND. “I’ve been practicing law for 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“I’ve never seen … such open, unvanquished animus and hatred toward people who have a biblical worldview,” Ovadal concurred.
Higginbotham rejected Donohoo’s motion as a “personal attack” and on the basis that it wasn’t filed in a timely manner. Ovadal intends to appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court, if necessary.
“I’m determined to keep fighting [Mazo Beach] and shut it down. I’m willing to pay the price. I just had a grandson born. I’m not going to bequeath this vile behavior to my grandchild.”
Changed scenery on Mazo Beach
Mazo beach is considered one of the finest along 92 miles of the Wisconsin River’s path. It has been frequented by
naturists since the 1950s. Naturist websites offer directions, lauding the beach as a “familiar name among naturists”:
“One of the most wonderful [things] is the camaraderie that people have for everyone that comes to the beach, which allows us to readily make new friends. At night many people will gather around community campfires and enjoy the sky rich of stars and warmth from the fire and friends. During the day is like going to most any other beach (abeit [sic] the clothing) we offer volleyball, swimming, sunning and other beach games. You might even be fortunate to come to the beach on one of the many planned weekends by the Wisconsin Badgers and Friends of Mazo Beach, who help to organize events such as Nude Olympics and Christmas in July. You might even make it for a weekend when a hot tub is brought down to the river or a trampoline.”
The naturist sites promote rules such as “no sexual conduct on the beach,” “you must not be seen nude from the parking lot” and “before taking someone’s picture ask thier [sic] permission.” A common admonition posted: “nude doesn’t mean lude.”
For naturist Thomas Meeker, a Vietnam veteran, Christian, deacon in his church and grandfather, nude sunbathing is about liberty.
“I would like to be able to enjoy my nudism at public beaches. There are umpteen miles of waterfront in this country; probably less than 20 miles are available for nude use without fear of arrest or citation. There are a few places where legal use is permitted.”
Despite Wisconsin statute 944.20, which outlaws lewd and lascivious behavior it partly defines as “publicly and indecently expos[ing] genitals or pubic area,” DNR maintains a stance that nudity at Mazo is legal. According to DNR documents, the department struck a tacit agreement with naturists that they could utilize a stretch of the beach without fear of arrest. After high water conditions and shifting sandbars caused a large portion of the nude beach to disappear in 1993, the naturists began using the beach frequented by the general public, which resulted in those users abandoning the beach. According to a DNR internal memo, by 1998 the beach had become almost exclusively used by nude sunbathers.
In a public hearing on a proposed ban on nudity in 1999, Mazomanie resident Selma Bennett complained she’s had to avoid the beach for 12 years, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“It’s always been called ‘Bare Bottom Beach,’ but then skinny dippers would put their clothes on when they saw people coming,” said Bennett. “We quit going after nudists would jog along with me and my family as we walked along the beach.”
Mazo’s popularity as a nude beach has swelled with more than a thousand beachgoers and 400 cars streaming in on
warm weekend days. The increased traffic raised environmental concerns and prompted DNR to take steps aimed toward limiting “people pressure” on the natural resources in 1994.
But the greater concern remained “the changing nature of the beach users,” according to a DNR internal memo that sounded the alarm that “the tolerance of public nudity and sexual activity has created and encouraged a perverse atmosphere.” A letter seeking direction from the Grant County district attorney expressed concern over an “increase in open consensual sexual activity” and cited an incident where a DNR employee was approached by an elderly male who “came out of the woods and grabbed the employee’s crotch and asked if he was looking for some action.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, the beach in recent years has become a popular place for “cruising,” which DNR spokesman Greg Matthews described as the search for anonymous sex by homosexuals. Records show DNR wardens also warned of “strong indications of increasing drug use and drug dealing in the Mazomanie beach area.”
While Matthews admitted the department will not ban nudity at the beach, increased law-enforcement presence has led to more arrests and citations for lewd and lascivious behavior, such as “cruising.” From May to October in 1999, Department of Natural Resources patrol officers recorded 122 arrests, citations or referrals to the Dane County District Attorney’s Office. This compares with 69 citations issued during the summer of 1998.
“What disturbs us is the 32 contacts that rangers made … for lewd and lascivious conduct, of which 23 cases were referred to the Dane County District Attorney for prosecution,” Ruthe Badger, Regional Director of the Department of Natural Resources South Central Region told WND looking back on the summer of 2000. “This is unacceptable, and as
these cases wind their way through the court system, we’re hoping that the word will get out and people thinking about
visiting Riverway properties to engage in this illegal behavior will think twice about it and modify their behavior or stay away,” added Badger.
“Last year, the problem was virtually non-existent,” Lutz told WND. “The only citation we issued for disorderly conduct
was for a protester.” When asked what explains the drop from 122 arrests or citations the summer prior, Lutz pointed to increased patrolling and “because we moved the entrance to the beach about a mile back to cut down on cruising.”
While DNR wardens may have stopped issuing citations or making arrests, the problem of lewd and lascivious behavior has not gone away, according to nearby residents.
“What I see from this end is not good. I’m ashamed of it,” Ruth Bender told WND. Bender lives and operates a canoe rental business from her property across the river. She explains that while the prohibition on overnight camping eliminated the late-night parties, she still frequently observes beachgoers having open sex.
“I have canoes go down the river, and some won’t even go there because of it.” Bender said one drunken woman tried to hit her with a wine bottle.
“It’s not cleaned up, and it never will be until they say, ‘put your clothes on.’ When you have your clothes off, one thing leads to another. I wish they’d have their own place. Why use the public’s land?”
Naturist Meeker stresses the problem isn’t the nudists, but law enforcement.
“It is somewhat of a catch 22: nudists try to avoid the hassels by going to remote areas; unsavory persons also are attracted to the remote areas; therefore the nudists are blamed for the unsavory and criminal behaviors.”
Mazo’s chicken and the egg
“I’ve taken the position that context matters with respect to the state statute on lewd and lascivious behavior,” Dane
County District Attorney Brian Blanchard told WND. “If someone were exposing their private parts on Main Street or in a
daycare, that would be lewd and lascivious behavior. But in a place where there’s a tradition of nude sunbathing like Mazo Beach, it is not lewd and lascivious behavior.”
At the public hearing in 1999, DNR legal counsel James Kurtz shed light on the department’s stance allowing nudity at Mazo, stating the department could not arrest people for simple nudity because the Dane County district attorney’s office would not prosecute the cases. Lutz agrees that this still factors into it, but says he agrees with the district attorney that case law interprets the lewd and lascivious statute as being “situational.”
“At a beach at a state park, we might enforce this law differently,” Lutz said, stressing that Mazo Beach hasn’t formally
been designated as a beach but remains part of a state wildlife area that is undeveloped.
As for lewd and lascivious cases “winding their way through the court system,” as Badger put it, none are. Blanchard confirms neither the DNR nor the sheriff’s office referred any lewd and lascivious cases to the office for prosecution last summer. But Lutz indicated DNR wardens consult with the district attorney’s office before referring any cases.
The only disorderly conduct case referred to and prosecuted by the district attorney last summer was that of Rev. Ovadal. A 1999 internal memo from then-Deputy District Attorney Brian Brophy to Blanchard’s predecessor Diane Nicks reflects disdain toward Ovadal.
“It is my experience that people such as Ralph Ovadal are addicted to attention and power; their religious fervor is simply the vehicle used to garner that attention,” Brophy wrote. Blanchard said he could not comment on the memo because he hadn’t seen it, but in reference to Ovadal’s conviction he said, “It’s my hope that we maintain standards of protest so that people are not fearful for their physical safety. The message of Pastor Ovadal is not the point. What he can’t do is come up near a person and threaten them in any way. There’s a line there. In our opinion the line was crossed.”
“It just shows you the ends to which officials are fighting for the sexual elite,” said Ovadal. “What really haunts me are the pictures we’ve taken of little kids being taken down there – and not always by their parents, according to police records. What’s it going to do to these children?”