Clearwater merchants upset over anti-Scientology protests

CLEARWATER — About three dozen downtown business owners are upset with a group of anti-Scientology protesters and want the City Council to do something about them.

But city leaders Tuesday said there’s little they can do.

“Suspending the First Amendment is something we shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time on,” Councilman Paul Gibson said.

The loosely organized group Anonymous has held several recent demonstrations against the Church of Scientology. Many Cleveland Street businesses say the masked protesters and the constant chanting have begun to take a toll.

They say the monthly demonstrations are turning away customers and ruining the overall ambiance of a downtown that city leaders have spent years trying to revitalize. And, they say, the protesters are scaring away people.

A petition signed by 34 merchants and two residents asked the council for “assistance in this matter.”

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On Tuesday, the City Council spent less than two minutes discussing the issue. The members agreed to send a letter to the businesses, saying they would not address the issue.

“I’m glad the City Council recognized our rights as Americans to gather to speak our opinions and protest,” said Joshua Nussbaum, 19, a student in Hillsborough County and local Anonymous organizer. “They did what was right . . . and we will continue to do what we think is right.”

The majority of the business owners who signed the petition are Scientologists, which led some in Anonymous to question whether the church had a hand in the petition. But Church of Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney and a number of business owners who spoke with the Times on Monday denied it.

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