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Judge draws line for Scientology opponents

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The group that has been taunting members of the Church of Scientology on a downtown Clearwater street should stay at least 10 feet from church properties, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr. ruled Wednesday.

The group also must not cross into a "safety zone" at the entrance to the church's downtown dining halls, the judge said.

Penick's ruling expands an earlier injunction that was limited to New England millionaire Robert S. Minton, who last month moved to Clearwater to oppose the Church of Scientology full time. In adding Minton's cohorts to his ruling on Wednesday, Penick said he was trying to prevent physical confrontation between Scientologists and Minton's group.

Penick issued his original injunction after Minton was charged with misdemeanor battery in an Oct. 31 confrontation with a Scientology staffer. Minton and a paid staff of six since have opened an office just 30 feet from a major Scientology building, saying they want the church to reform.

In recent weeks, some in Minton's group have picketed near the church's dining halls and yelled to Scientologists that a refuge awaits if they want to leave the church. As tensions mounted along the narrow side street, the church and Minton have called Clearwater police and City Hall for help.

Penick urged both sides on Wednesday to adopt a spirit of cooperation respecting each other's rights.

"I would beseech both sides to refrain from over-burdening the Clearwater Police Department and other governmental authorities with Chicken Little phone calls," Penick said. "The sky is not falling. So knock it off."

Church officials say Scientology staffers have done their best to ignore Minton. Minton and his staff say they are exercising their First Amendment rights.

Penick referred to the ongoing dispute as "the world's greatest chess match," as each side seeks an edge. But he added: "I will never be able to anticipate every move."

He told lawyers for both sides he would be willing to hold regular hearings on the stand-off if necessary.

In ruling Wednesday, Penick specifically named three Minton followers who now are to abide by the 10-foot buffer: Jesse Prince, Grady Ward and Mark Bunker. Penick included any agents of Minton's new Clearwater corporation.

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