Scientologists Stir Up Ybor

TheTampa Tribune/May 31, 2003
By Shannon Behnken

Tampa -- For months, well-dressed Scientologists have lined parts of Seventh Avenue, two on each side of the street, passing out pamphlets and asking passers-by to take a personality test.

Now, Ybor City residents and business owners are complaining to the city that they are being harassed by Scientology recruiters who follow them down the street and won't take no for an answer.

"People have said they are just as annoying as panhandlers,'' said Vince Pardo, president of the Ybor City Development Corp.

The Church of Scientology of Tampa has quietly run a bookstore in Ybor City off and on since 1997, but recently has beefed-up its presence in the entertainment district.

The church is renovating a building it is leasing at 1619 E. Eighth Ave. and plans to open The Scientology Life Improvement Center on June 7, said Ana Tirabassi, spokeswoman for the church's Tampa headquarters.

It is moving its Seventh Avenue bookstore there, across from Gameworks, and will offer lectures, courses and films on Scientology, she said.

Scientologists stand on street corners not to harass people, Tirabassi said, but "to introduce us to people new to the subject.''

"It's a traditional way of letting people know about Scientology,'' she said. "It's what we do in cities all over the country. We have excellent relations with our Ybor neighbors, and there have been no complaints that I know of.''

Legal Options Explored

In response to complaints made to the city, Councilwoman Rose Ferlita on Thursday asked the city's legal department to investigate the issue and find out what, if anything, the city can do to limit how Scientologists recruit in the district.

"We have two issues here,'' Ferlita said. "The respect of visitors of Ybor and religious rights.

"I don't really feel you can equate this to panhandling, but them approaching someone may ultimately end in the request for a contribution.''

Tampa has an aggressive panhandling ordinance that prohibits people from repeatedly asking for money. Members of the Ybor Coalition have asked the city whether it can draft a similar ordinance to limit how many times Scientologists can ask someone to take a personality test.

But because it is a religious organization, it has protection, said Gina Grimes, chief assistant city attorney. The city is faced with balancing the constitutional religious rights of the church with the rights of someone to walk down the street without feeling pressured, she said.

"We definitely need to gather the facts, review the codes and look into whether we need new codes that address this,'' Grimes said.

'They Seem So Sneaky'

Joe Howden, an Ybor resident and Barrio Latino commissioner, said he walks past at least four Scientologists daily on his way to work at King Corona Cigars at 1523 Seventh Ave.

"We've worked hard to get panhandlers out of this area, and now we have these people standing on the street approaching people, and it's unfair,'' he said. "I don't know why this organization seems to think it has the right to step beyond the boundary of personal space.''

Irene Pierpont, general manager of Centro Ybor, said she has had to ask Scientologists to leave her property.

"We wouldn't have a problem if we didn't witness them following people down the street,'' Pierpont said. "But we just can't have that here.''

Rachelle Wagner, an Ybor resident, said she's glad to see the church renovating a vacant building, but she's concerned that members don't identify themselves when approaching people on the street.

"The average person doesn't know what a personality test is or what Scientology is,'' Wagner said. "What bothers me most is that they seem so sneaky.''

The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has religious headquarters in Clearwater.

The church first leased a building in Ybor on 16th Street in 1997. It joined the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce and remained a member even after closing the store a year later. In May 2002, the church opened a bookstore at 1409 Seventh Ave.

In October 2001, it bought the Andres Diaz building at 3102 N. Habana Ave. in West Tampa and moved its Tampa headquarters there. Before that, it rented a storefront at 3617 Henderson Blvd. in south Tampa.

Tirabassi said the church has "no immediate plans'' to purchase more property in Tampa.

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