Church, critics may share path
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 1998
LEARWATER -- In what is fast becoming a local tradition, the Church of Scientology and its critics again are trying to outmaneuver each other in preparation for a series of anti-Scientology pickets this weekend in downtown.
The result in recent days has been an unusual game of chess played on the concrete squares of downtown's public sidewalks.
The match began last month when the church convinced city and state officials to close two sidewalks used in past years by Scientology critics. The sidewalks are in front of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel on both sides of S Fort Harrison Avenue.
One of them was torn up and barricaded this week by church staffers, even though Scientology critics had reserved the sidewalk in April with a city "special events" permit. City officials were hard pressed Wednesday to explain how the mix-up occurred.
"It shows the church has a fear of public criticism," said Jeff Jacobsen, an organizer of the pickets, which will protest Scientology's treatment of Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after a 17-day isolation in the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the church requested the sidewalk closings to make room for holiday decoration work on the hotel and construction work on the church's massive new building across the street.
City officials said such permits are routine for major construction projects.
However, Rinder also said the closings were a way to put some distance between church members and the protesters.
"They want to try to goad someone into creating some sort of incident, and we're avoiding any kind of confrontation with them," he said Wednesday afternoon. "They're upset about that? Sorry."
Under the church's permit, the east sidewalk across from the Fort Harrison Hotel will be closed for months, perhaps years, until the new building is finished. The west sidewalk will be closed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays.
Those times overlap the scheduled afternoon pickets on Saturday and Sunday, and a candlelight vigil in McPherson's memory Saturday night.
Late Wednesday, however, the duel took another twist when Jacobsen acquired a city permit shortly before the close of business at City Hall.
The permit allows the Scientology critics to start their picket Saturday and Sunday after the church's permit expires at 3 p.m. and before it resumes at 6:30 p.m.
It also allows the critics to march on the sidewalk directly in front of the Fort Harrison Hotel instead of across the street as was originally planned.
"If they had just left us alone, we'd be on the other side of the street," Jacobsen said. "Now we're on their side. They always have to be in the attack mode."
A surprised Rinder said Wednesday evening that he would talk with city officials today. He said he was under the impression the church's permit lasted the entire weekend with no breaks.
He said the church will be installing its decorations late Saturday afternoon when the critics are now permitted to picket. "It just isn't going to work," Rinder said.
Clearwater police officials said they will be posting extra officers to monitor the protests. Jacobsen said the candlelight vigil, originally planned for the torn-up sidewalk, will be held at the same time in front of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, just north of the Fort Harrison Hotel.
About 50 pickets from various parts of the country are expected to show, said Jacobsen, who is from Phoenix.
It is the fourth picket of its kind in downtown Clearwater, and the Church of Scientology has never allowed them to be held without a challenge.
In March 1997, hundreds of Scientology parishioners surrounded and confronted the pickets and blocked their signs. They did the same during the evening vigil and blew out the demonstrators' candles.
Last December, Scientology pressured city officials to close the sidewalk to the pickets, saying they were prone to violence. When city officials did not relent, an estimated 3,000 Scientologists mounted an angry march against the Clearwater Police Department.
Rinder said no such countermeasures are planned for this weekend.