Jury backs police raid of 'church' Funk Fest

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A jury weighing the arguments of the Church of Universal Love and Music against those of Fayette County officials made its decision Friday, and the defunct, once-funky Bullskin congregation lost.

Six women and two men agreed that the county violated neither the freedom of religion, nor the freedom to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, nor illegally retaliated against around a dozen plaintiffs when police raided a "Funk Fest" on Aug. 1, 2009.

"I would say that the jury understood that the actions of law enforcement on the Aug. 1 event were not the result of any county directive or action, and that the conduct of the law enforcement officials was appropriate for the circumstances they encountered," said attorney Marie Milie Jones, who represented the county at trial in U.S. District Court.

Attorneys for the Church of Universal Love and Music released a statement praising the plaintiffs' "strength and courage ... in coming into court to share their faith and relive a horrible experience in an effort to protect freedoms that most of us take for granted every day."

At trial, the plaintiffs had chronicled a decade of conflict between officials and "church" founder William D. Pritts, who had used his 149-acre property for gatherings featuring music.

Officials used zoning laws to try to stop Mr. Pritts' concerts. In early 2009, a legal challenge by Mr. Pritts' organization led to a settlement in which the county paid $75,000 and agreed not to interfere with his concerts, and he agreed to keep out drugs.

The police raid, coordinated by the Fayette County district attorney's office, netted 76 baggies of marijuana, 20 baggies of hallucinogenic mushrooms, nine hits of LSD, two portions of hashish, six nitrous oxide dispensers and hundreds of pipes, and resulted in around 20 arrests from among some 1,000 concertgoers.

The plaintiffs argued they did nothing illegal, but were subjected to abuses by police that they said were an effort to retaliate for the earlier zoning fight and scare Mr. Pritts' cohorts away.

It worked: Mr. Pritts stopped holding concerts and tried to sell the property.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they had not decided whether to appeal the verdict to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

neigh_washington

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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