A decade of discord between Fayette County and a defunct non-denominational funk-loving church may reach its final stanza this week in a federal courtroom.
Trial started Monday in the Bullskin-based Church of Universal Love and Music's lawsuit against the county, which is accused of violating religious liberty and the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure in an Aug. 1, 2009, raid on a concert called Funk Fest.
The two sides opened with starkly different accounts of the raid, with the plaintiffs portraying it as a retaliatory "war," and the defense characterizing it as a reaction to "open and obvious" drug use.
"The name 'church' can't be used as a veil to hide behind and engage in illegal activity," attorney Marie Milie Jones, representing the county, told the six women and two men of the jury. She said that officers seized 76 bags of marijuana, 20 bags of hallucinogenic mushrooms, nine hits of LSD, two bags of hashish, six nitrous oxide dispensers and "hundreds and hundreds of smoking devices" at the event.
"It's not about drugs," countered attorney Gregory Koerner for the church. "It's about what happens when people who work for the government start believing that they are above the law."
The church, according to Mr. Koerner, believed in "the power of community, fellowship ... music and having events in nature." The county used zoning law to shut it down for three years, he said.
Ms. Jones said that founder William D. Pritts only formed a church in order to use religious status to overcome officials' objections to his operation of a commercial venture on land zoned agricultural.
In March 2009, the county paid the church $75,000, as part of a settlement under which it would not interfere with future concerts, and Mr. Pritts promised not to allow illegal drug use.
Two months after the agreement was reached, the county district attorney's office began an investigation of the church. Mr. Koerner painted it as retaliation for the earlier court fight, while Ms. Jones said it was independent police work.
It culminated in the raid of the 149-acre property during an event attended by more than 1,000 people.
Mr. Koerner repeatedly noted that U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose has ruled that the search warrant allowing the raid was unconstitutionally broad.
When drug task force members in body armor entered the property with "automatic weapons" drawn, they searched people ranging from children to senior citizens, he said.
"Yes they had weapons," Ms. Jones said. "They're police officers." She said that "15, maybe 20" participated in the raid.
They arrested around 20 people for marijuana possession and seized pipes, Mr. Koerner said, but he claimed that the real goal was "to scare the hell out of everybody."
"Fayette County decided they wanted to destroy this church with this warrant, and they did," Mr. Koerner said. "They shut down the church illegally, because they couldn't do it legally."
He urged jurors to "assign value to that" by awarding damages.
Ms. Jones noted that Judge Ambrose subsequently enjoined Mr. Pritts from holding further concerts, and he then "agreed, on his own, to stop future concerts."
The trial is expected to last all week.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published July 22, 2013 1:30 PM