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Church draws line for critics

With dots on their clothing, anti-Scientology protesters, from left, Bill Scannell, Suse Hartweg and Doni Maxwell picket near the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater on Friday. The dots were intended to mock those spray-painted by church members to indicate boundaries beyond which protesters could not go. [Times photo: Scott Keeler]

The church spray-paints boundaries near its buildings to show protesters where they cannot go.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 1999


CLEARWATER -- In the ongoing quest for dominance of Clearwater's public sidewalks, another unusual turn.

The Church of Scientology has taken the liberty of showing its leading critic where he may and may not walk with a picket sign this weekend.

Hundreds of bright orange dots decorated the public sidewalks and streets surrounding Scientology buildings in Clearwater on Friday, the work of church staffers with spray paint cans and measuring tapes.

The painting was done in response to a judge's order Thursday that Scientology critic Robert Minton stay at least 10 feet away from 17 church buildings in Clearwater. By Friday morning the orange markings appeared like an overnight snow, showing lines of demarcation 10 feet from each property.

The boundaries were visual aids for Minton and those joining him this weekend to protest Scientology and memorialize Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died Dec. 5, 1995, after 17 days in the care of church staffers.

In some places, the dots were connected by orange chalk lines. At Hacienda Gardens, a residence for Scientology staffers, the church had installed long rows of tiny orange survey flags that told Minton he was welcome to walk on a narrow strip of grass near the curb on Saturn Avenue.

Minton's attorney, Denis deVlaming, compared the spray-painted markings to graffiti.

Police Chief Sid Klein said the markings were "defacing public property." A short time later, Scientology officials told Klein they would remove the markings. They also gave him detailed drawings of Scientology buildings, complete with marks showing the 10-foot boundary.

Scientology critics mocked the markings Friday by wearing round orange stickers on both their clothes and picket signs.

However, they were kept at a distance from their usual picketing spot in front of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. The church has erected a giant scaffold in front of the hotel and has torn up sidewalks around the building.

Church officials say the work was planned months ago and is not related to the pickets. But protesters say it's an obvious effort to keep them at bay.

The judge's 10-foot order resulted from an incident the night of Oct. 31 in front of the Fort Harrison. Minton was carrying an anti-Scientology picket sign while a church staffer, Richard Howd, followed him with a video camera.

Angered at Howd's closeness, Minton pushed his sign in Howd's face and was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor battery.

In addition to ordering Minton to stay at least 10 feet from Scientology properties, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr. ordered Howd to stay at least 20 feet away from Minton.

The judge said he was trying to prevent the sidewalk gamesmanship that led to the Oct. 31 incident and others between Minton and Scientology. He called it "picket chicken."

But both sides were confused by wording that extended the order to all "officers, agents, servants, employees" of Minton and Howd, as well as "those persons in active concert" with them.

Minton's camp interpreted that to mean all Scientologists were ordered to stay away from him. Scientology interpreted it to mean that all the anti-Scientology protesters in town this weekend had to stay 10 feet away from church buildings.

Enter Klein, who was left to cut through the confusion and enforce the order.

The chief met with both sides Friday, telling them his officers will focus on Minton and Howd, and that if anyone else in either camp engages in "picket chicken," there will be one warning.

"For those who elect not to comply, we're not going to play any games," Klein said. "They will be on their way very quickly to the county jail."

The chief said several police vans will be available today and tonight, just in case.

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