Clearwater -- Hard-charging critics of the Church of Scientology recently were told by the government that it's permissible for Scientologists who own shops downtown to refuse them service.
Last September, Mark Bunker didn't even get beyond the front door of One Stoppe Shoppe on Cleveland Street when the owner told him: "You're not allowed in here."
Two days later, Bunker and Jeff Jacobsen had just finished lunch at Daniela's Kitchen on N Fort Harrison when they were told never to come back. The two men, both employed at the Lisa McPherson Trust, a downtown organization dedicated to fighting Scientology, believed their rights had been violated. They filed discrimination complaints with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights.
Last month, their claims were rejected. The Office of Human Rights ruled that church critics do not fall under one of the classes protected against discrimination, said Leon Russell, the county's human rights officer. Further, Florida law allows business owners to refuse service to any person "who is objectionable or undesirable to the operator," so long as it's not based on race, creed, color, sex, physical disability or national origin.
Bunker and Jacobsen are still smarting. They, and others in the McPherson Trust, say the decision is another indicator that Scientology is taking over Clearwater.
The trust also learned recently that it was snubbed by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. The trust's membership application, filed a year ago, was never accepted. Trust members say they heard about it from a Scientology lawyer. Chamber officials say they question how the trust fits in with the chamber's business mission.
Trust members say the chamber is filled with Scientologists who don't want church critics among the membership. "There's nobody in Clearwater who can go against Scientology," said Stacy Brooks, president of the Lisa McPherson Trust and a former Scientologist. "It's really scary."
As a result of the ruling, the doors at Daniela's Kitchen and the One Stoppe Shoppe will stay closed to church critics, say the shop owners. As Scientologists, they need to be protected from harassment by "professional bigots," they say. It's the church critics who are guilty of discrimination, the shop owners said in their written responses to the discrimination complaints.
"They are enemies of mine," said Paris Morfopoulos, owner of One Stoppe Shoppe. "I don't want them as customers and I'd certainly never assist them in any way."
Daniela Malka said while Jacobsen and Bunker did not cause any problems in her restaurant when they ate there, she has seen them picketing her church. The trust's offices are across the street from her restaurant and just 30 feet from a major Scientology building. Trust members have been known to shout obscenities on sidewalks and wave protest signs with swastikas in front of church buildings.
"They really, really chose a very bad spot to be located in," Malka said. "If they did choose this spot to be close to the church, this is the kind of situation they are going to confront. The church isn't joking around." Civil rights expert and historian Ray Arsenault said while the findings of the Office of Human Rights properly applied the law, the Scientology business owners are discriminating against the church critics.
"I don't think it should be legal," said Arsenault, a University of South Florida professor and acting president of the Pinellas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They're being penalized for their expression of the First Amendment. . . . It really is a way of trying to bring pressure to stop them from exercising their First Amendment rights."
Scientology attorney Kendrick Moxon described the discrimination complaint as another scheme by the Lisa McPherson Trust to get media attention and cause trouble for the church.
"When you look at how they were hired to come to Clearwater to cause Scientologists to be discriminated against and that they're saying now, 'We're being discriminated against,' they're completely outrageous," Moxon said. "It's a created situation. They are trying to create turmoil in the community."
The discrimination complaints were set in motion last September by an attempt to buy an ashtray. Bunker was creating a video on "demystifying Scientology" and wanted a glass ashtray as a prop. He combed local stores before heading to One Stoppe Shoppe.
A familiar figure on downtown streets, Bunker often points his video recorder at Scientologists and is a thorn in the side of the church. One Stoppe owner Morfopoulos recognized him immediately.
"I said, 'I just want to buy a glass ashtray,' " Bunker said. "He said, 'No, I won't sell you one.' So I left." Actually, no members of the McPherson Trust are welcome in his store, Morfopoulos said.
"If a drunken bum comes in the store and tries to create a problem, I'd discriminate and these people are in that class," Morfopoulos said. Two days later Bunker and Jacobsen ate at Daniela's Kitchen. As they were leaving, Malka asked her boyfriend to tell them not to come back. "My purpose was simply, 'With all due respect, you're not invited here,' " Malka said. "You're destroying my church."
In defending their right to deny service, the business owners filed with the county hefty packets of documents that included, among other things, a Web site listing the Lisa McPherson Trust as a hate group, photos of trust founder Robert Minton picketing the church, a sworn statement by a church security officer recounting acts of violence against the church, correspondence and news articles about Minton's business dealings and police records of two other church critics not involved in the complaint.