Church on trial following drug raid
PITTSBURGH — A church that contends the jam band concerts it promotes are worship services will try to convince a U.S. District Court jury this week that a drug raid at one such music festival in 2009 was an unreasonable search spurred by southwestern Pennsylvania county officials hell-bent on persecution.
But to prove its religious retaliation claim under federal law, the Church of University Love and Music must first convince the jury that “Funk Fest” was an expression of “sincerely held” religious beliefs — and not merely a hearty outdoor party that drew about 400 people.
“This is about a 10-year consistent campaign by Fayette County to shut down the church,” said Gregory Koerner, the church’s attorney.
In fact, the beef between the county and William Pritts, a feed store owner with a 147-acre spread about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, began in 2001.
That’s when the county zoning board first denied Pritts’ request for a special exception to host music, fundraising and religious events. Neighbors had complained the weekend concerts, including nationally known acts like Parliament Funkadelic founder George Clinton, caused too much noise and traffic.
After fining Pritts for zoning violations and later violating a court-ordered compromise that limited the number of concerts he could hold, a county judge banned all concerts.
Pritts filed a $1 million federal lawsuit in 2006, claiming his right of religious expression was being violated.
Pritts had filed years before to have his church recognized as a tax-exempt charity with the Internal Revenue Service. But county officials argued Pritts’ church sure didn’t act like one.
The county noted Pritts charged admission instead of taking donations and said he didn’t claim to run a church until the county questioned his plans to build an amphitheater, among other issues. County officials also argued that Pritts’ church was dormant in the winter and didn’t seem to have any coherent dogma. Pritts responded by announcing sponsors or church members would fund the concerts and argued in the lawsuit that “no dogma is necessary to honor the Earth and our place in it.”
Weeks before that case was to go to trial in early 2009, Marie Milie Jones, the county’s attorney, sought to introduce video of an interview Pritts gave to Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” back in 2003.
In it, Pritts argued, “It is our right to worship God however we want. Just because we’re not doing it exactly the same way they are doesn’t make it bad.”
But Pritts also riffed on the church’s policy on “bogarting,” a drug culture term for refusing to share marijuana, which county officials say confirmed their suspicion that Pritts’ church tolerated widespread drug use.
“Bogarting a joint? Uh, it’s kinda rude not to share,” Pritts quipped.
U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose, who will preside at the trial that begins Monday and has handled the litigation for years, disallowed the video as evidence because it had been edited and augmented with a laugh track which, she ruled, might put Pritts’ remarks in an unfair context.
Rather than go to trial then, the county paid Pritts and his attorneys $75,000 and agreed in March 2009 to let the church hold six weekend festivals and six other Saturday-only concerts annually.
Illegal drugs were explicitly banned, among other restrictions.
That deal didn’t last long.
The county drug task force raided “Funk Fest” on Aug. 1, 2009, arresting 21 people and seizing large amounts of LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana, though charges were later dropped against several defendants.
That prompted the current lawsuit, and the judge has already ruled that the “all persons present” search warrant — which allowed police to search everyone at the show — was illegal and overly broad.
Koerner said such warrants can be issued to search people inside crack houses or other clearly illegal operations, but it was unprecedented, illegal and vindictive to use one to police a concert. He also contends the probable cause for the warrant was anonymous information provided two years before, proving the county was retaliating against the church, not trying to police a current drug problem.
The county disagrees.
“This case is about lots of drugs and lots of arrests for the use of drugs, and how does that tie into the county’s alleged retaliation for religious beliefs?” Jones said. “And we’d argue it doesn’t tie in.”
Koerner insists his clients are sincere believers and the best evidence of that is that the church is recognized as a charity for tax purposes.
No matter what happens this week, however, the church will never reopen in Fayette County.
“The church has been destroyed,” Koerner said. “If we get some money, he’s going to relocate to another county.”