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Preacher guilty of disturbing church service

It took a jury a little more than an hour Wednesday to decide that a preacher disturbed a religious service at Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church three years ago, but a church member did not.

The case against William Davis and Angela Sweet called into play the issues of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

The jury determined that Davis, who is a minister and a postal worker, broke the law when he walked into Mount Pilgrim's service singing a different hymn from the rest of the congregation. Once the congregation was quiet, according to testimony, Davis yelled at them.

After Davis left the service, which was winding down, Sweet walked in and told parishioners that she loved them but God did not approve of their actions.

The jury said Sweet violated no laws.

The July 1990 incident concluded a year of turmoil in the church, wherein two opposing sides fought for control of the pulpit.

St. Petersburg police officers, who were stationed at the church every Sunday for seven and a half months, testified that services were chaotic, raucous and out of control.

In June 1989, a large faction of the group voted to oust the pastor, Rev. L. P. Davis, from the pulpit and went to court to evict him. Davis, William Davis' father, refused to leave.

His supporters, including Sweet and Davis, said the firing was illegal, so they would not recognize it.

Those who disagreed, sometimes banged on pots and pans while he spoke. One woman attacked him with a stick. Another fired a gun in fellowship hall. There were boom boxes and megaphones. They would race each other to the microphone for control.

After William Davis and Sweet were charged, the factions finally went their separate ways.

Davis and Sweet's attorneys argued that the charges violated their constitutional rights.

Prosecutors argued that by causing a disturbance, Sweet and Davis violated the religious freedom of those assembled.

By its decision, the jury found a little of both.

William Davis could have been sentenced to a maximum of 60 days in jail for the misdemeanor conviction, but County Judge Thomas B. Freeman chose instead to fine him $350.

Because of the church's atmosphere, prosecutors said, they did not seek jail time for Davis.

Freeman had once thrown out the case, declaring the statute unconstitutional, but the decision was overturned on appeal.

Afterward, William Davis was happy for Sweet and not surprised by his own verdict. He could have paid a lower fine long ago and had the case behind him.

"But then I would have to admit I was wrong," he said. "And I wasn't. If I'm not guilty, it doesn't matter what the record says. . . . I'm glad it's over."