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    Judge rebukes Scientologists, critics

    The judge calls for a halt to loud skirmishes and says if either side wants to protest the other, Clearwater police must have a one-hour notice.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 28, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Like a principal separating two schoolyard rivals, a Pinellas County judge on Friday ordered the Church of Scientology and its critics to back off.

    No more yelling and whistling and carrying on.

    No more waving signs in the faces of church members as they get off a bus to grab a bite to eat.

    Stop the spying.

    And if you want to picket each other, give Clearwater police a one-hour heads-up.

    Hoping to put an end to the over-the-top antics played out between the two sides on the streets of downtown Clearwater, Circuit Court Judge Thomas E. Penick added the words "permanent" to an injunction requiring the two groups to stay 10 feet away from each other.

    But he also added a few new rules to the sometimes bizarre warfare between the church and its nemesis, the Lisa McPherson Trust. McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers.

    While the order seeks to end harassment on both sides, it specifically targets several trust activities.

    For example, if trust members want to demonstrate in downtown Clearwater, they'll need to be quiet about it. The order prohibits either side from yelling, shouting, whistling or singing, or blowing a horn whistle or other noisemaker that creates a "loud and raucous noise" that would disturb "reasonable persons of ordinary sensibilities."

    The order also expands the previously established no-picketing zone to prohibit the trust from waving signs across from the Watterson Street curb where Scientology members often get off buses to enter a Scientology cafeteria. The cafeteria is also about a block from the headquarters of the Lisa McPherson Trust.

    The requirement to give Clearwater Police at least an hour's notice of an impending picket came at the suggestion of the Police Department, which had been criticized by some for allowing Scientology to hire off-duty officers for security. The church paid off-duty officers more than $150,000 since January 2000 to provide security daily on Watterson Street, according to city records.

    In his order, Penick stated that practice "has raised serious legal and ethical questions about their responsibilities and the source of funds paying them."

    Clearwater police legal adviser Robert J. Surette says the one-hour advance notice of pickets may eliminate the need for the off-duty officers.

    "That will enable (Clearwater) Chief Sid Klein to allocate his resources in advance to ensure the rights of both sides are protected and peace is maintained," Surette said.

    Surette said police were frustrated by frequent calls to arbitrate "juvenile, nit-picky" incidents between the two sides.

    Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope, who represents the church, noted the privilege of hiring off-duty police officers is extended to every resident and organization in Clearwater.

    But he otherwise applauded Penick's order.

    "It sets forth some guidelines that I think will go a long way to keeping the peace in downtown Clearwater," he said.

    Stacy Brooks, president of the Lisa McPherson Trust, was less enthused.

    "I think the idea that there's a need to keep the peace is a concept manufactured by Scientology," she said. "What Scientology is trying to do is whittle away our civil rights in Clearwater."

    Penick concluded after hearing several days of testimony in November that while the two sides may not ever be able to get along, he'd prefer the public not have to continue to foot the bill to arbitrate their disputes.

    "The financial hemorrhaging must be stopped," Penick stated.

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