Members of the Covina City Council heard a convincing plea last month familiar to many officials in San Gabriel Valley cities.
"After the brutal crackdown on Falun Gong I was sent to work in a forced labor camp," said Bin Li, a local Falun Gong practitioner who was asking the City Council to pass a resolution condemning the Chinese government's persecution of her group.
"I was brainwashed and mentally, spiritually and physically tortured," she added.
Reacting as most people would to Li's plea, Covina Mayor John King promised council members would vote on a resolution at the following meeting.
Two weeks later, enthusiasm for the resolution faded quickly after Councilman Walter Allen quoted passages from the group's founder that condemned marriage and reproduction between races.
After hearing those ideas, council members hastily voted the resolution down.
In the San Gabriel Valley, Falun Gong activists have appeared at meetings since at least 2001 trying to gain support for resolutions against China, according to city documents.
Baldwin Park, Azusa, La Puente, Alhambra and Covina are among the cities the group has visited, but Pomona is the only city that has passed a resolution condemning China.
John Li, a spokesman for local Falun Gong groups, said his group at Caltech has about 500 associated members, but was unsure how many practitioners there are in L.A. County.
As Falun Dafa, originated in the early 1990s in China as a health and exercise movement based on Buddhist teachings. But it also has religious overtones with a founder who has condemned homosexuality as "unnatural" and said that different races go to different heavens.
Chinese government officials turned on the group in 1999 and began to imprison and torture practitioners, persecution that continues today, according to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report.
The group's founder, Li Hongzhi, fled the country in 1999, as did many other practitioners.
In 1998, Chinese officials estimated the group had 40million practitioners in China, and the Falun Gong estimated its numbers at 100million worldwide, according to a Falun Gong Web site.
However, several regional representatives of the group said they have no idea how many practitioners there are in the United States.
Experts familiar with the speeches and writings of Li Hongzhi say he has dropped references to some of his more controversial views since establishing the United States as his group's home.
"My understanding is that since 1999 the Falun Gong in North America are trying to whitewash their past views and normalize the organization in the eyes of the public," said Maria Chang, a UC Berkeley political science professor who wrote a book on the Falun Gong.
Several Falun Gong members in different local chapters defended their views on homosexuality as being in line with that of Christian groups and said the views on race are misunderstood.
"There is no conflict with homosexuals within our group," said John Li. "We don't want to tell other people what to do."
John Li added that he doesn't think "any religion promotes homosexuals."
On mixed races, John Li said, the group's views are difficult to understand, but Falun Gong does not disapprove of people of different ethnicities dating or marrying.
"We have in our local group two practitioners dating, one Taiwanese, one white," said John Li. "It's not a problem."
John Li said Li Hongzhi's references to races as not supposed to mix refers to "celestial beings," rather than people on Earth.
John Li and other practitioners said the group's main message is "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance," which they say outweighs any other views their founder has expressed.
Falun Gong has dedicated volunteers and activists in major cities across the world, and has not been shy about using litigation as a tool to protect its interests.
The group lacks a central national organization, according to Gail Rachlin, a volunteer spokeswoman in the New York organization, and lawyers who have represented Falun Gong groups usually work pro bono.
Local chapters have filed numerous lawsuits against Chinese officials for human-rights violations. They also sued the China Press, a pro-China paper that takes an anti-Falun Gong point of view, claiming defamation, in 2003, but lost.
They have also sued San Francisco after the group wasn't allowed to march in its Chinese New Year's parade and threatened lawsuits against other groups that they say have taken an anti-Falun Gong line.
Group members also have been active in protesting the Bedding Olympic Games float in Pasadena's Rose Parade.
Paul Talbot, the former mayor of Alhambra, said he was accustomed to seeing group members occasionally at City Council meetings.
"Over the years we'd have them show up regularly," said Talbot. "We sympathized, but a little city does not have to step into foreign policy."
Talbot learned the hard way the perception that a city is supporting the Falun Gong can draw a powerful adversary: the Chinese government.
Though Alhambra did not pass a resolution, Talbot did declare a Falun Gong week in 2000, honoring a local group that met regularly in the city.
Shortly thereafter, Talbot issued a public apology to the Chinese Consulate and said the city did not mean to endorse the views of the Falun Gong.
When asked to comment, Talbot chuckled and answered: "All I can say is it is best to keep both sides as happy as possible."
He added, "I think I actually confused Tab Chi and the Falun Gong when we made the proclamation. ... I had no idea what I was getting into."
Other local elected officials also have issued resolutions supporting the group.
Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, issued a Special Congressional Recognition for Falun Dafa Week in August 2003 and last week sent a letter to Chinese President Mu Junta to set free relatives of practitioners in Los Angeles County.
When asked if she was aware of the group's views on homosexuality and race, Solis issued the following statement: "While I don't personally share Falun Gong's beliefs, I support their right to freedom of expression, a right all Americans hold dearly."
Alhambra officials also struggled with what to do about a Falun Gong request to march in a Chinese New Year's parade in 2005.
Chamber of Commerce officials denied the request, said Talbot, because of the political nature of the group.
The same rationale applied to denials of the group's annual request to march in parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Only in San Francisco did the group file a lawsuit, which claimed Falun Gong was being discriminated against.
"We just wanted to be in the parade, not to make a political statement," said Sherry Zhang, a volunteer spokeswoman for the Bay Area Falun Gong group that filed the lawsuit.
She noted that the group did participate in the 2004 parade when it applied under the name of "Falun Dafa," an alternate name used by the group. She argued that nobody accused Falun Gong of behaving politically in that parade.
The Falun Gong group lost the lawsuit in February, though Zhang said they plan to file an appeal.
A regional chapter in New York threatened a lawsuit against a domain name provider that hosted an anti-Falun Gong Web site.
Samuel Luo of San Francisco, who runs the Web site www. exposingthefalungong.org, sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005 after his domain provider received a letter demanding they reveal the identity and contact information of Luo.
The complaint was more focused on denouncing the content of Luo's Web site rather than raising a legal objection.
The letter called his Web site "defamatory" and "highly immoral," and accused Luo of "endorsing the inhumane treatments and killing of Falun Gong practitioners."
Their legal objection, according to the letter, was that Luo had infringed on their trademark by using the term "Falun Gong" on his Web site. That "clearly did not violate trademark law" the ACLU explained in its response to the group.
"They want to shut me down just because I criticize them," said Luo.
In the summer of 2005, Luo and another presenter were set to speak about the Falun Gong at a conference at the International Cultic Studies Association in Spain.
A few weeks before, group officials told Luo they were forced to cancel his speech because a lawyer representing the Falun Gong in Spain threatened to sue them.
"Any action that validates, supports, or gives credence to the (Chinese Communist Party's) propaganda, lies, and defamation about the practice of Falun Gong is in itself collaborating in the genocide and tortures," wrote attorney Carlos Iglesias Jimenez in a letter to the association.
Ming Xia, a political science professor at the City University of New York, said he thought few Americans know much about the Falun Gong.
"Politicians can make themselves look good by taking on a Chinese regime that is unpopular," said Xia. "That is why the Falun Gong have done very well here."