St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 1999
Which is the real Church of Scientology?
Is it the apparently reasonable group whose relationship with the city of Clearwater is evolving into one of acceptance and cooperation? Or is it the litigious force that clings to a secretive, malevolent image?
In the past two weeks, Clearwater residents have seen both sides of the Church of Scientology.
For the first time, some business people spoke of Scientologists as an asset in downtown Clearwater rather than as a liability.
Five developers submitted ambitious plans for downtown redevelopment, proposing movie theaters, shops and public improvements worth millions of dollars. The sleepy downtown with a controversial religious presence is worth the risk because thousands of residents and tourists with money to spend form a ready market, developers said.
They even used a Scientology report that says 1,000 church members, many wealthy, visit downtown Clearwater each month. "We viewed it as a potential positive," said Jay Miller of Steiner +
Associates, one of the developers.
The church also hired the prominent Clearwater law firm Johnson Blakely Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns to handle local issues. The lead attorney on the account, Ed Armstrong, will be chairman of the Clearwater Area Chamber of Commerce next year. Some saw the arrangement as a sign that the Church of Scientology has achieved a new level of acceptance in the business community.
But the church soon embroiled itself in a new controversy.
Robert Minton, a wealthy New Englander, showed up in Clearwater to lead a vigil for Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in the custody of church members. The church faces criminal charges of abusing a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.
Scientologists followed Minton and videotaped his every move, a tactic labeled "picket chicken" by a judge. Minton was charged with striking a church member, and the church hauled him to court where a judge ordered the activist to maintain a 10-foot distance from Scientology's 17 buildings.
Then, in a childish display, Scientologists painted orange dots on city sidewalks marking a 10-foot zone around the church's buildings. The church also tore up sidewalks in front of its Fort Harrison Hotel as part of a project whose timing appears to be no accident.
In its effort to intimidate Minton and his followers and to limit their right to peaceful protest, the church showed it will spare no expense to silence its critics. By its overreaction, the church drew attention to an otherwise uneventful protest and motivated Minton to further action. He vows to establish a permanent presence in Clearwater, offering defecting Scientologists and critics a "safe zone."
It is his right. But constant ideological battles in courtrooms and on downtown sidewalks can only damage Clearwater's image.
So which Church of Scientology is building an ever greater presence in downtown Clearwater?
Is it the one that can be seen as an asset in the redevelopment effort? Or is it the one that continues to draw adverse publicity to a city that has suffered enough turmoil?
Only the highest Scientology officials can answer those questions. All of Clearwater will be waiting and watching their actions.
No matter how much money the Church of Scientology brings to downtown Clearwater, it will be impossible for it to be an asset if it cannot control its harmful behavior.