Clearwater board says Scientology violated sign laws

Tampa Bay Times/November 21, 2013

By Charlie Frago

Clearwater -- A wrap that until Tuesday covered a massive Church of Scientology tent downtown violated the city's sign laws, a municipal board ruled Wednesday.

The Code Enforcement Board also said if the church places other illegal wraps around the 150,000-square-foot tent that it could be fined $500 a day as a repeat offender. No fine was imposed Wednesday.

The church removed the controversial wrap Tuesday, prompting city officials to wonder if the church planned to attach other wraps for celebrations later this year.

"That may very well be the case," said Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing the church. But Armstrong and church representative Sarah Heller declined to confirm whether more wraps were in the works.

Instead, the church argued that the wrap wasn't a sign, but art albeit intended only for its own members.

Board member Mike Riordon asked why the church didn't seek the city's permission or feedback before putting it up.

"How is it that you think people in general would really believe that you didn't know there would be an issue with this?" Riordon asked Heller.

"If we'd considered it a sign, we absolutely would have come in for a permit," Heller responded.

Armstrong and fellow attorney Gina Grimes said the city's actions infringed on religious freedom, risked violating federal laws protecting that freedom and showed faulty interpretations of its own ordinances.

A city attorney said the issue wasn't about art or religion, but signs.

"We are simply asking that they follow the rules just as any other good corporate citizen, religious citizen or even just a regular plain Jane or Joe Citizen would do," said Camilo A. Soto, assistant city attorney.

The purpose of the multi-colored wrap that included the phrase "Golden Age of Tech" and an acronym for "Keeping Scientology Working" was aesthetic and religious, Heller said.

"They have meanings for Scientologists and to make it look prettier," Heller said.

The board ruled 6-1 that the church had violated the city's sign code.

James E. Strickland, the board's vice-chairman, cast the lone dissenting vote.

Church attorneys said at the outset that they didn't think the board would give the church a fair hearing because of comments made to the Tampa Bay Times by board chairman Duane Schultz. He was quoted in Wednesday's newspaper saying he wished the church would be a better "team player."

Schultz offered to abstain from voting, saying later that he feared saddling the city with legal fees if the vote went against the church. But Armstrong said he was satisfied he would keep an open mind.

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