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Scientology hearing founders in jabs, jeers

The judge sighs a lot and compares himself to a nanny dealing with children.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


They took separate elevators up to the courtroom on the third floor.

They entered the courtroom from separate doors, one from the back, one from the side.

Then the well-suited lawyers for each camp argued about how close they could get to each other.

Never have 10 feet been so important to two groups.

Ten feet -- that's five paces -- has become ultra-important to downtown Clearwater's archenemies, the Church of Scientology and the Lisa McPherson Trust, an anti-Scientology watchdog group.

It's how far apart the members of each group must stay from each other, according to an injunction issued Nov. 30 by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Thomas Penick.

On Friday, Penick faced the parties again at the St. Petersburg Judicial Building as each accused the other of crossing the line. Each side was hoping Penick would find the other in contempt of court, and maybe even toss them in jail.

Among their claims:

The church says critic Tory Bezazian sat in its Santa chair.

The trust says Scientologists had someone follow two of its people to Ruth's Chris Steak House in Tampa and interrupt their supper.

But Friday, Penick never got to see any of the evidence, even though he had blocked off his entire day for the hearing. But by 12:30 -- after three hours of back-and-forth -- the hearing was over, bogged down in technical legal issues.

What Penick did do Friday morning is hold his head in hands and sigh a lot. Piles and piles of paperwork from the case surrounded him. He rescheduled the hearing for a Saturday and Sunday in February.

"There seems to be a never ending wealth of allegations and remarks etc., etc. between the parties, and other courts seem to get to deal with more weighty legal matters," Penick said, "while I get left like the nanny at home that has to take care of the children."

Penick issued the injunction to keep peace on the streets of downtown Clearwater during an annual protest staged by Scientology critics in December. His order is in effect for six months.

There's reason for the injunction, refered to as the "10-foot cootie rule" by one church critic.

The two sides have scuffled in the past. On Halloween day in 1999, church critic and McPherson Trust founder Robert Minton was charged with misdemeanor battery after a confrontation with a Scientology staffer. Minton was later acquitted after his lawyer argued he was provoked.

The McPherson Trust has an office downtown just 30 feet from a major Scientology building. Tension simmers daily between the groups. They videotape each other's comings and goings. They glare at each other across sidewalks. Trust members regularly picket church properties.

At Friday's hearing, the church critics came with props: a megaphone, like the ones they use to picket the church, and "The Threep," which Minton uses when he protests.

The Threep?

"Threep means three P's, Penick Picket Pole," Minton explained later.

It is a retractable pole that stretches to 10 feet with a copy of the injunction hanging at the end. The Threep is also equipped with a bicycle horn and a flashing red warning light.

Across the courtroom, Scientologists ignored the critics, even as they made loud comments during breaks intended for the church members to hear. Ben Shaw, director of external affairs for the church's Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, didn't find the props amusing.

"He's making a mockery of the court," Shaw said.

The critics also wore white roses on their lapels. Members said it was a new statement symbolizing the White Rose, a group of German students and academics who protested Nazi Germany's Third Reich during World War II.

From the bench, Penick took note of the adornments.

"You can notice one side because they're all wearing white roses," Penick said. "Maybe from now on these sides should come in color-coded."

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