The U.S. Supreme Court might have had someone like Greg Scharf in mind when it made this observation regarding the First Amendment: "The problem of drawing the line between a purely commercial activity and a religious one will at times be difficult." Indeed the controversy Scharf brought to Coconut Grove a few weeks ago has resulted in difficulties. A 49-year-old vegetarian given to gold neck chains and matching bracelets, Scharf set up a table on the sidewalk in front of CocoWalk and began to sell T-shirts. Much to the aggravation of competing merchants, Scharf did not have an official permit and he didn't follow any of the city's rules for street vendors in the Grove: use of a special cart, selling only handmade crafts, and operating in an approved location. Only ten such locations exist in the Grove's central business district, and would-be vendors have to take their chances in an annual lottery for the spots. But not Scharf.
"I'm controversial because there are shops that sell T-shirts here," he says smoothly. "But I'm not in the T-shirt business; I am in the freedom-of-religion-and-speech business." Scharf, no relation to Miami Beach artist Kenny Scharf, is the East Coast representative of One World One Family Now, a San Diego-based church sanctioned by the Internal Revenue Service. The brightly colored shirts, featuring slogans such as "Save the Dolphins" and "Harmony and Balance in Nature," are the proclamations of its religion of "spiritual ecology." Scharf maintains that his peddling on a public sidewalk is a form of religious expression protected by the First Amendment and is thus immune to regulation by the city.
Local merchants were dumbfounded when they heard that the city agreed with him. The phone has not stopped ringing at the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce, says executive director Amy Simons, as retailers, landlords, and residents alike complain about what Simons calls the "messy and unprofessional" One World table in the center of their well-groomed village. "Nobody wants them there," sighs city administrator Christina Abrams, head of the Grove's Neighborhood Enhancement Team. "The city allows it on the advice of our city attorney's office."
Among other things, business owners are rankled that One World's T-shirts can be had for a "donation" of five or eight dollars, steeply undercutting the average fifteen-dollar price in village stores. Barry Long, an owner of Palm Produce Resortware on Main Highway, pays a rent so exorbitant that he doesn't want it publicized; plus he is responsible for his landlord's $10,000 property tax bill. "I have to pay big overhead, and they come in and set up a table in a prime location and sell shirts for five dollars," Long sniffs. "I don't understand how they do it." Wayne Brehm, owner of Om Jewelry on Grand Avenue, sees One World as nothing short of the breakdown of the village's law and order. "The city commission made rules that people can't walk around selling whatever they want in the Grove," Brehm protests. "There would be ten million vendors in the Grove if they allowed it."
Coconut Grove isn't the only place Scharf has set up shop. He also has a table in South Beach and four in Key West, each manned by volunteers who receive a stipend for living expenses. During the off-season, he moves his operations to Ocean City, Maryland, and to the public Mall in Washington, D.C., where Scharf claims President Clinton once stopped during a morning jog to pick up a shirt. (The commander in chief wasn't asked for a donation.) One World also has vendors in San Diego, Honolulu, Seattle, and other cities. Everywhere they go, municipal governments either voluntarily exempt them from vending laws or are forced to do so following legal battles One World inevitably wins. "If there is a law that allows them to do this, then it needs to be amended," complains Long, the frustrated Coconut Grove retailer, "because it is people taking advantage of a loophole."
That loophole, however, is known as the Bill of Rights, and it isn't likely to be amended. In a series of cases going back to 1987, federal courts have agreed that the distribution of T-shirts bearing political or religious messages is a form of noncommercial speech, and where commercialism and free speech are intertwined, governmental regulation is severely restricted.
The latest decision came in One World's skirmish with Key West, which frustrated Scharf's attempt to obtain permits for his tables by stalling the request in city bureaucracy. Last May federal judge James Lawrence King ordered the city to allow One World to set up its tables without a permit. King has yet to decide if the city will be whacked with $36,000 in attorney's fees for One World's trouble. Earlier, when Scharf had come knocking on Miami's door for the first time in the fall of 1993, the city determined it would have better luck dealing with frustrated merchants than fighting One World in court. "The courts pretty much vindicated the City of Miami's position," says Assistant City Attorney Joel Maxwell. "In fact, Key West called us and we gave them our legal opinion that One World had a right to be there."
Last year Scharf approached Miami Beach officials for a prime spot on Ocean Drive, and they ended up putting him on the east side of the street. But this year, bolstered by the Key West legal victory, Scharf demanded a spot on the more heavily trafficked sidewalk on the west side of the street. The city gave him what he wanted, and One World's table landed in front of the Adrian Hotel at Eleventh Street and Ocean Drive. Just two weeks before that decision, the hotel's owners had requested a permit for sidewalk tables to accommodate their newly renovated cafe, a fact that led to some friction between the hotel and One World. In the meantime, the city is preparing an ordinance that takes advantage of the limited regulations permitted by law. But that will hardly satisfy retailers who harbor doubts about One World's religious integrity. "The guy is using the First Amendment and religion to make a buck using nonprofit status," snarls David Blakely, manager of the Adrian.
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John West, a former member of the Hare Krishna movement who helped found One World five years ago in San Diego, is accustomed to such cynical suspicions, and he doesn't like the merchants any more than they like One World. "As far as I am concerned they are greedy, selfish, inconsiderate people raping the planet," the 50-year-old West says from his San Diego office. "I am not here to justify myself to businessmen."
When it comes to business, though, One World enjoys a distinct advantage: its status as a tax-exempt religious organization. In addition to being relieved of the burden of income taxes, One World in some states does not have to pay sales tax, either. West says his branch of the organization does pay its vendors' federal employee taxes and workers' compensation. But on the East Coast, Scharf runs things a little differently. His workers, he explains, are volunteers and therefore are not subject to employee taxes. Scharf himself doesn't take a salary, he says, because he is independently wealthy from a family inheritance (his father owned two plastics factories in Connecticut). Though Scharf estimates that he takes in up to $3000 per day in Florida, he claims he is often forced to contribute his own money to keep things afloat.
Operating deficits haven't dampened Scharf's spiritual ambitions, however. He's negotiating with Hollywood for another Florida location to spread One World's eco-gospel. "A pamphlet can be thrown away, but my message on a T-shirt is seen by millions," Scharf boasts. "It's the Nineties way to get your message across in a personal way."
After listening to the legal arguments supporting One World, a disgusted Barry Long in Coconut Grove still believes city officials could find a way to fight Scharf if they wanted to. "I think I'll become a church and set up right in front of them," vows Long. "Pretty soon we'll have the whole street lined with church vendors, and then the city would have to do something about it.