Scientology protests prompt new Riverside County law

The measure requires anyone protesting near private residences to remain at least 30 feet from the property line. Critics contend it violates free speech.

Los Angeles Times/March 3, 2009

Reporting from Riverside - Protesters targeting a Church of Scientology compound near Hemet now face stricter limits on how they can conduct demonstrations, according to a new ordinance adopted Tuesday by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

The measure, which critics say violates the 1st Amendment and gives the church special treatment, requires anyone protesting near private residences to stay at least 30 feet from the property line.

Graham Berry, a lawyer and one of the protesters, told the board that the ordinance "does not pass constitutional muster."

"It is vague, ambiguous and unenforceable," he said.

The ordinance, which applies to all unincorporated county areas, was proposed by Supervisor Jeff Stone last November in reaction to what he said were trespassing and threats of violence by opponents of Scientology at the Gilman Hot Springs location.

Small groups of demonstrators often gather outside the gates of Golden Era Productions, which produces movies and CDs for the Church of Scientology, to protest what they say is an abusive religious cult. The compound is home to roughly 500 church employees. When protesters show up, church officials usually call the authorities.

"A good ordinance should be clear and consistent and have a compelling interest behind its passage," said Supervisor Bob Buster, the only one to vote against it. "Eventually you will spend a lot of money in court to determine what it means, and it will cause more strife than it solves."

Critics accused Stone of letting the church's lawyer write the ordinance. Attorney Sam Alhadeff, who represents the Scientologists, denied that, saying he submitted similar ordinances from other counties to Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls so she could see how they were written.

"I don't find that out of bounds," he said.

Supervisor Roy Wilson asked for a Sheriff's Department report in six months stating how many arrests were made due to the ordinance.

Berry said his group will continue its protests.

In January, Riverside County supervisors had passed a similar protest ordinance, but it was temporarily suspended for revisions.

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