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Group called Anonymous protests Scientology policies in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — While thousands of college kids on spring break enjoyed a gorgeous Saturday on Clearwater Beach, another group of young people descended on the otherwise-deserted downtown wearing surgical masks, fake beards and bandannas.

A group of about 150 people, mostly college-age, spent the sun-splashed day protesting the Church of Scientology outside its spiritual headquarters.

Timed to coincide with Scientology's celebration of founder L. Ron Hubbard's birthday, it was the second major protest in Clearwater by a loose-knit Internet activist group that goes by the name Anonymous.

The protesters chanted slogans like, "Religion is free, Scientology is not!" They carried signs that read, "You can't sell real enlightenment," and "Cults don't get to be tax exempt."

They also derisively sang Happy Birthday to Hubbard as they wove around Scientology buildings.

The downtown, which is usually bustling with uniformed Scientology employees, was conspicuously quiet. Staff members were instructed to stay indoors and not confront the protesters.

The protesters were shadowed by a significant police presence. Officers reported no arrests or major problems during the day.

The event at times seemed one part protest and one part party.

When the Anonymous group gathered next to the Clearwater Library to rest, members sang and danced to music playing on a boom box. Some even did a little break dancing.

Almost everyone carried a camera or video equipment to capture the scene.

While many passing motorists honked their horns in support of the protesters, others weren't impressed. Posted on the entrance of one pizza shop was a sign that said: "No masks inside. No hate! Pizza instead."

It was a bizarre scene in downtown Clearwater on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

"I don't think it makes for the greatest environment downtown," Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "Obviously, it disrupts some things."

It's also expensive.

"It causes us to make sure we have enough resources to plan for different scenarios, which I am not crazy about in this tight budgetary climate," Hibbard said. "But they have a right to peacefully protest."

Clearwater police spent $5,665 on overtime expenses and other additional resources to handle the first protest by Anonymous on Feb. 10.

Fueled by the Internet, Anonymous coalesced when Scientology attorneys pressured the Web site YouTube to remove an unauthorized video of Tom Cruise speaking about the church.

Without identifiable leaders or hierarchy, Anonymous grew into a determined underground campaign against Scientology. Most members refuse to identify themselves and wear masks to conceal their identity because they fear Scientologists will harass them.

Joshua Nussbaum, one of the organizers of the Clearwater protest, said the group's concern is not the beliefs of Scientology. But he said Anonymous believes the church quashes free speech.

He said Anonymous also opposes some of Scientology's more controversial policies, including disconnection, in which members are forbidden from talking to other family members who have renounced Scientology.

"This is the best way to enjoy ourselves and have fun," Nussbaum said. "It's the best way to get our message out."

There were other Anonymous protests Saturday in dozens of cities around the world.

The Church of Scientology filed two lawsuits last week seeking to keep Anonymous protesters at least 500 feet away from its buildings in Clearwater.

The lawsuits alleged that Scientology churches around the world have been bombarded with thousands of harassing phone calls, millions of malicious and obscene e-mails, and bomb and death threats by members of Anonymous.

"This is a group of terrorists," said Pat Harney a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater.

The suits, which were quickly rejected, received significant media attention and left many wondering if the church's response hadn't inadvertently elevated the profile of the protest.

Largo resident Guy Pettingill said Scientology's aggressiveness spurred him to join the protest Saturday.

Though he attended the Feb. 10 protest and considers himself a friend of Anonymous, he says he is not a member.

But Pettingill was one of 26 people listed in the church's lawsuit as a member of the group.

And on Friday, Pettingill, 47, received a letter from a Scientology attorney that insinuated he was responsible for acts of terrorism against the church. The letter ordered him to cease those activities and threatened to refer him to federal authorities.

"I'm interpreting this as an attempt to essentially rattle me," Pettingill said.

The letter instead cemented his resolve not to back down.

"To suggest that I associate with people who are terrorists is ludicrous," said Pettingill, who works in the information technology department at Eckerd College. "I don't know anyone who would do that, and if I did, I would go to the police."

Chuck Beatty, a former Scientology staff member who is now a critic, said the lawsuits reflect Scientology's policy of "always attack, never defend."

Harney said the church is simply trying to respond to what it perceives as a serious threat to its members. She said the protesters incite the kinds of threats and harassment detailed in the lawsuits.

"It is a hate group stirring people up," Harney said.

Nussbaum and others at the protest Saturday condemned any illegal threats or harassment that may have been issued in the name of Anonymous.

"We have a very serious stance on peaceful, legal protest," Nussbaum said.

The timing of the protest was particularly offensive to church officials, who noted that thousands of Scientologists from around the world are in town to attend the church's annual gala for Hubbard's birthday.

Some 4,000 Scientologists gathered at the event at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday night. A group of about 20 Anonymous protesters stood in the rain outside the hall's entrance.

On Saturday, most Scientologists steered clear of downtown sidewalks. But a few gathered at a Starbucks and watched.

Joanie and Steve Sigal, two prominent Clearwater Scientologists, said it seemed to them like a bunch of college kids looking to latch onto a cause.

"They have a right to protest," Steve Sigal said. "But most don't even know what Scientology is."

"It's offensive," Joanie Sigal said. "They know nothing about me and what I do in this community.

Church officials said the size of the Anonymous gathering on Saturday was much smaller than the one on Feb. 10 and suggested the group is losing steam.

But Nussbaum said he counted about 200 people, roughly the same number as the first protest.

"It shows people aren't getting tired and still believe in this cause," he said. "We'll most likely protest in April and May and June. And if we have to, we'll keep going on forever."

Times staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at farley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8603.

Group called Anonymous protests Scientology policies in Clearwater 03/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 6:01pm]
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