The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 20, 2013

Fayette County going on trial over ‘music church’ 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 Fayette County officials hell-bent on persecution.

But to prove its religious retaliation claim under federal law, the Church of Universal 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, 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, a county judge banned all concerts.

The county has said Pritts charged admission instead of taking donations and that he

didn’t claim to run a church until the county questioned his plans to build an amphitheater.

Pritts filed a $1 million federal lawsuit in 2006, claiming his right of religious expression was being violated.

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 ruled already that the “all persons present” search warrant – which allowed police to search everyone at the show – was illegal and overly broad.

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.”

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