Scientology critics to get bricks

A group beautifying a Clearwater alley reverses course and will let donors memorialize a church member who died

St. Petersburg Times/April 26, 2001
By Deborah O'Neil

Clearwater -- Lisa McPherson will be memorialized in a downtown alley next door to a Church of Scientology building.

A group that sold hundreds of engraved bricks to beautify the city-owned alley has reversed an earlier decision, deciding to allow a McPherson memorial brick and two other bricks submitted by Scientology critics.

McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 in the care of church staff members.

After her death, the state Attorney's Office filed criminal charges against the church that later were dismissed. Scientology critics hold annual pickets and vigils in downtown Clearwater marking the anniversary of her death and drawing criticism from the church.

"The decision not to order three bricks has been rescinded," Citizens for a Better Clearwater wrote in a letter received this week by John Merrett, an attorney for the Scientology critics. "Upon receipt, these bricks will be placed in the Cleveland Street Gas Light Alley with other inscribed bricks."

The brick request by Jeff Jacobsen and Stacy Brooks, both staff members at a Scientology watchdog group named the Lisa McPherson Trust, touched off a tremor downtown, demonstrating how seemingly innocuous efforts can become controversial because of the relationship between the church and its opponents.

"All that we wanted to do was create a place of beauty and hope for downtown," said Pam Marks, co-chair of the Citizens for a Better Clearwater.

Marks refused to answer questions about why the group changed its decision. She said she had a message from the group's volunteers: "Come and see your park. It speaks for itself. That's the real story."

In earlier interviews, Marks said the group's 10-member steering committee rejected the three bricks because they thought the trust members were trying to create dissent. She would not reveal who sits on the steering committee but said it does not include any Scientologists.

Merrett said he suspects one reason the volunteer group has changed its mind is it wants to avoid further scrutiny of who is involved. Ultimately, he said, he is satisfied with the outcome.

"I think somebody pointed out to them they were about to have some serious problems," Merrett said. "It would have been entertaining to watch them squirm, but the point always was that (my clients) be allowed to speak in a public forum."

City Attorney Pam Akin said the group made the right decision regarding the bricks.

"I think it is the best decision to go ahead and accept the bricks," said Akin.

The initial rejection of the bricks raised serious questions about First Amendment rights in the city-owned alley. Akin said when she first researched the issue last fall, the city was not as involved in the alley project as it now is. With the city's increased involvement, the city's liability is "less clear," she said.

A letter Merrett sent to the city in early April had some influence, Akin said, "He came to us immediately and said, 'This (alley) is yours, and you need to fix it.' That certainly got my attention," Akin said.

Jacobsen and Brooks said they plan to resubmit their brick orders and checks. Bricks cost $35, $45 and $55. Jacobsen also ordered a brick in memory of Leo J. Ryan, a California congressman killed while investigating the Jim Jones cult in Jonestown, Guyana. Brooks wants a brick in memory of Roxanne Friend, a former Scientologist and friend who died of cancer.

Brooks, a former Scientologist and president of the trust founded by fellow critic Bob Minton, called the reversal a "victory for civil rights."

A Church of Scientology spokesman did not return a telephone message. In an earlier interview, however, Ben Shaw had said Citizens for a Better Clearwater was doing the right thing by screening out the critics' bricks.

"The whole message of the park is cooperation and harmony and the rest of downtown, and our parishioners helped build the thing," Shaw said.

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