By DAVID SOMMER of The Tampa Tribune
ST. PETERSBURG - A judge gets a look at the bitterness of the fight between Scientology and its critics.
After hours spent Monday viewing obscenity-laced videotapes of Scientologists and antichurch protesters confronting one another on public streets, a judge held off ruling on a permanent injunction against a prominent church critic.
``I'm concerned that both sides seem to have a fetish with getting within two feet of one another,'' Judge Thomas Penick said.
``I saw in video after video that you couldn't get a piece of paper between these people ... the whole situation concerns me, quite frankly,'' the judge said in Pinellas Circuit Court.
At a nine-hour hearing, Penick was asked to make permanent an injunction he imposed earlier this month against New Hampshire millionaire investment banker Robert S. Minton.
Penick said he will announce his decision Thursday. In the meantime, he will study case law, particularly a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving protesters outside an abortion clinic in Melbourne.
The videotaped confrontations between Scientologists, Minton and other antichurch protesters show the situation to be both incendiary and ongoing, the judge said.
``I see propensities here. This could just be the tip of the iceberg,'' the judge said.
The request for protection from Minton stems from an Oct. 31 incident outside Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater. There, Scientologists from around the world come for spiritual counseling that critics claim is simply a front for making money.
Minton was charged with misdemeanor battery after a police officer said he saw him use a foam and cardboard placard to strike a church member who had been videotaping a two-person protest at close range.
Acting on behalf of member Richard W. Howd Jr., church lawyers quickly obtained a temporary injunction barring Minton from going near Howd or any other Scientologist. The order also prevents Minton from going within 150 yards of 17 church properties, most in downtown Clearwater.
Minton's lawyers contend the incident was the latest attempt by church members to provoke their critics into fighting so that injunctions can be obtained to keep them from protesting.
In a series of videotapes, church members could be seen getting within inches of Minton and other placard-carrying protesters. In some, church members screamed insults, and in others they complained of being bumped or stepped on and were asking that colleagues call police.
Minton and other protesters can be heard responding with vulgar sexual taunts. On the witness stand Monday, Minton said that in every instance he and his fellow protesters were echoing taunts made off-camera by church members.
Howd, Minton said, fell dramatically to the street after being bumped with the placard.
Police Officer Mark Beaudette, who arrested Minton, testified he would not have been knocked down by such a blow.
David Sommer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 799-7413.
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