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The annual event is restricted by a court order prescribing where the pickets can be. Police expect little or no friction.
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Critics of the Church of Scientology will take to downtown streets this weekend and march in a protest that has become an annual ritual.
They will picket against a backdrop of special community events celebrating the holidays and the 10th anniversary of the Pinellas Trail. As it was last year, the protest will be tempered by a court order issued Thursday stipulating specific locations where the critics can and cannot picket.
The protesters target this weekend each year, they say, to commemorate the death of Lisa McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died Dec. 5, 1995, after a 17-day stay at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.
Clearwater police will monitor the protests, scheduled between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. today and Sunday. At 7 tonight, the protesters also plan a candlelight vigil in McPherson's memory.
Police also said they plan to enforce Thursday's court order, which they discussed Friday with both the church and the critics.
"Everyone is aware of the rules, and we expect them to abide by them," said police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "We'll brook no friction, but I don't think that there's going to be much."
This is the sixth protest staged by critics of the Church of Scientology, which calls Clearwater its spiritual headquarters.
Organizer Jeff Jacobsen said he expects about 40 protesters, some from as far away as Germany.
He said the critics want the Church of Scientology "to stop hurting people. With Lisa's case, it's the ultimate example of Scientology hurting someone. There's no evidence anywhere Scientology has learned anything from Lisa's case, which means it can happen again."
Criminal charges were filed against the Church of Scientology after McPherson's death but were dropped in June by the State Attorney's Office. All along, Scientology officials said the church was not to blame for McPherson's death.
Church spokesman Ben Shaw said Friday the protest is being led by "hatemongers" who have lied to the public and the media about the church.
"It's astonishing to me that in the face of everything that has occurred in this case, this hate group is still trying to gain notoriety," Shaw said. "The case is over."
Shaw said the church had no plans to react to the critics. Instead, church members will be involved in a downtown Holiday Bazaar sponsored by Clearwater's Parks and Recreation Department and Main Street program. The bazaar will close Cleveland Street today from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. between Myrtle Avenue and Fort Harrison Avenue.
Still, Shaw said, the church was pleased Circuit Court Judge Thomas Penick granted an order restricting the protest. The order also names a handful of known church critics and the Lisa McPherson Trust, an anti-Scientology watchdog group that in January set up offices downtown.
"We're happy the judge granted us some protection," Shaw said. "I'm actually concerned about security."
The injunction includes 10 maps of church facilities with color codes designating where critics may stage their protest.
For instance, picketers can be across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel but not on the sidewalk directly in front of it. It also specifies that the critics and church members must stay 10 feet away from one another and cannot harass one another.
Friday morning, the church tried to make sure anyone planning to protest received notice of the injunction. Process servers hired by Scientology lawyers stood outside the Trust building handing copies of the injunction to people going in and out.
Jacobsen said he expects the protesters to abide by the injunction, even though they disagree with it.
"It's a huge violation of our First Amendment and free speech rights," Jacobsen said. "Every year they do something to try and stop us. This year, they relied heavily on the injunction."