ST. PETERSBURG -- A judge has called for an end to "picket chicken" in Clearwater, the taunting, red-faced, nose-to-nose encounters that have flared in recent months between Church of Scientology staffers and their nemesis, New England millionaire Robert Minton.
In an order Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr. said Minton and Richard Howd, a Scientology staffer, "must be mutually restrained" after an altercation Halloween night.
Minton must stay at least 10 feet away from 17 Scientology properties in Clearwater. And Howd must stay at least 20 feet from Minton. But afterward there was confusion on several points. For example: Did the judge mean to ban Minton from all public sidewalks in front of Scientology buildings?
Attorneys for the church and Minton left the county courthouse in St. Petersburg with different interpretations of Penick's order, all on the eve of anti-Scientology protests planned this weekend in Clearwater. Penick issued his ruling after sitting through a nine-hour hearing Monday. He viewed seven videotapes of anti-Scientology pickets, most of them involving Minton.
One of them showed a clash last year in Boston, where Minton and a companion were engaged in a profane and full-throated debate with two Scientology staffers. There was jostling, brushing of shoulders and nose-to-nose screaming. A Scientology staffer was seen yelling at Minton to go away, his lips just 2 inches from Minton's ear.
Minton was arrested after the encounter, but a misdemeanor charge of assault and battery was later dropped.
Penick said both sides have "engaged in the dangerous and threatening practice of seeing how close one can get to the other while each is exercising his respective constitutional rights."
He said Minton's two arrests had resulted from this practice, which he called "picket chicken."
Minton was arrested Nov. 1 and charged with misdemeanor battery for striking Howd with his poster board picket sign.
Howd, a Scientology security staffer, suffered scratches near his left eye. Howd had been following Minton's car much of the day and was standing close to Minton with a video camera when the incident occurred in front of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.
The courtroom was packed for Thursday's hearing. The crowd of more than 70 sat in a rigid, self-imposed segregation, like families at a wedding. On one side, about 40 local Scientologists sat behind a table occupied by Howd, Scientology officials and two church lawyers.
On the other side, behind Minton and three attorneys, were about 30 Scientology critics from around the country, some of them former Scientologists.
Penick's order is good for six months, but may need to be readdressed. Minton, who has homes in Boston and New Hampshire, says he is moving his base of operations to Clearwater. He says he has a contract to buy an office building next to church facilities downtown and plans to set up an organization that will challenge Scientology.
He says he has spent more than $2.5-million on an anti-Scientology crusade that began about two years ago.
There was disagreement Thursday on how far Penick went. His order that Minton stay 10 feet away from church properties was interpreted by Scientology to mean Minton could not use sidewalks in front of church buildings. But Minton's attorney, Denis deVlaming, said there was room on the sidewalks for him to picket.
DeVlaming also said the order requires all Scientologists, not just Howd, to stay 20 feet from Minton. Scientology lawyers disagreed, but said church members don't want to be near Minton anyway, as long as he keeps his distance.