Clearwater -- For the first time in Pinellas County, a jury has been convened to consider a case involving the Church of Scientology.
The case is a complex civil matter, with the church claiming it was the victim of a breach of contract.
As the trial began Tuesday, the church fielded a legal team of nine lawyers and legal assistants Boxes of their legal documents filled most of the back row of the courtroom.
On the other side was attorney Ken Dandar, represented by Luke Lirot, longtime attorney for nude-dance club operator Joe Redner.
The case is an offshoot of the wrongful death lawsuit against the church by the estate of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of the church, whose spiritual headquarters is in downtown Clearwater.
In May, the church filed a motion to move the breach of contract case to another county after a survey suggested most Pinellas residents had unfavorable opinions of the church.
Finding an impartial jury in Pinellas would be impossible, argued the church.
The church later withdrew its motion, but its concerns were borne out this week.
Picking a jury proved difficult.
Under questioning, some in the jury pool referred to Scientology as a cult - "No offense," several told the church's legal team.
Others questioned whether it should be considered a religion and admitted they doubted they could be impartial.
Several potential jurors said they overheard people in the jury pool making disparaging comments about Scientology as they waited in the halls to be interviewed.
But after nearly two days, six jurors and an alternate were culled from a pool of 50 people, and the jury was sworn in Tuesday afternoon.
In his opening statement, Scientology's lead attorney, Samuel Rosen, argued the wrongful death case was being used as a springboard to attack all of Scientology.
Rosen contended Robert Minton, a wealthy hard-line critic of Scientology, persuaded Dandar to use the lawsuit to "nail the cult's a-- to the floor."
To that end, Rosen argues, Dandar added top church officials, including the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, as defendants in the wrongful death suit. In exchange, Rosen said, Minton paid Dandar more than $2-million.
A month after Dandar filed the motion to add the church leaders as defendants, a judge denied it, ruling the motion directly violated a written agreement Dandar made with church attorneys two years earlier.
But the church did not stop there.
It sued Dandar, his law firm and the McPherson estate, seeking attorneys' fees and punitive damages.
Pinellas-Pasco Judge W. Douglas Baird concluded the estate had breached the contract. At issue now is how much the church is owed in damages.
With the church's leaders under attack, Rosen said, the church tapped significant legal resources, including four law firms, and spent more than $50,000 to defeat Dandar's attempt to add church leaders to the wrongful death suit.
The church wants to be reimbursed that $50,000 plus "a significant amount" in punitive damages, Rosen said.
Dandar's attorney, Lirot, argued Tuesday that Dandar intended to pursue church leaders in the wrongful death lawsuit long before he ever met Minton. He said there was no conspiracy to change the case to accommodate Minton's aims.
In his opening statement, Lirot argued the church is owed no more than $2,500 in legal fees.
Lirot called the breach case an attempt by the church to financially "suffocate" Dandar and the McPherson estate to prevent them from further pursuing the wrongful death lawsuit. That lawsuit, now six years old, has not been set for trial.
In June, the church filed a motion seeking to move the wrongful death trial out of Pinellas County, arguing a "barrage of negative media coverage" about the lawsuit has led to widespread community prejudice against the church, so that it can no longer get a fair trial in Tampa Bay.
That motion is still under consideration.