Scientology group challenges Ingleside on the Bay's new film permit ordinance, Texas/July 5, 2011

Ingleside on the bay - A Scientology group trying to discredit one of the religion's most influential ex-members by filming and surveilling him in this small bayside town plans to continue its activities — described by law enforcement as harassment — despite a new city ordinance.

The Squirrel Busters, who say they are making a documentary about Scientology defector Mark Rathbun, told the City Council they won't abide by the ordinance that would have required them to apply for a film permit.

Instead, they submitted a letter saying their lawyers told them the city ordinance violates their free speech rights and could draw the city into lawsuits. The letter did not explicitly threaten to sue the city.

Ralph Gomez, the group's assistant producer, said documentary filming will continue.

The group's activities have gone beyond documentary research, according to police reports and interviews with law enforcement officials, neighbors and Rathbun and his wife. But none of their activities have risen to the level of a crime, said Oscar Rivera, chief deputy of the San Patricio County Sheriff's Office.

Film crews have showed up at Rathbun's door, surveilled he and his wife at a local restaurant, and learned his travel plans and greeted him at airports. When, in a moment of frustration, Rathbun snatched a microphone from a crew member, the county attorney refused to prosecute the resulting theft complaint against Rathbun, saying no jury would convict a man who had suffered as much provocation as he had.

Ingleside on the Bay Mayor Howard Gillespie said that in light of the potential legal challenge, the city will have its attorneys and the Texas Municipal League suggest amendments to the film permit ordinance. In the meantime, the crews will be free to film.

Rathbun, who attended Tuesday's council meeting while the Squirrel Busters filmed it, moved to Ingleside on the Bay, after 27 years in the church, to rebuild his life and help others do the same. He joined a growing chorus of former members who describe the church's practices, especially its treatment of defectors, as abusive.

The Church of Scientology has denied all the claims and gone to great lengths to discredit its detractors. But it claims no association with the Squirrel Busters.

"Squirrel" is a word used by Scientologists to describe others who, in their view, misapply the church's beliefs and technologies.

Rathbun said he has struck a nerve with the church because he still believes in the fundamentals of the religion founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, but he disowns the church and its practices.

During the weekend, he went to a ranch in Livingston for a reunion with about 120 other former Church of Scientology members. Rathbun said it was the second year for the reunion.

"It's independence from the church," he said. "We thought it would be a great thing to have it on Independence Day."

As he left Ingleside on the Bay on Saturday, a group stood holding a banner on Farm-to-Market Road 1069, the gateway to the city, Rathbun said.

"Squirrel bust at Lake Livingston," the banner said.

"They knew where I was going," Rathbun said.

Reunion participants were greeted at their hotels with pamphlets intended to trash Rathbun's reputation, and ads were taken out on a local radio station under the name Squirrel Buster Productions.

"He's here to let off a little steam, like he did in New Orleans," one of the ads said.

Rathbun was arrested in New Orleans last year on a charge of disorderly conduct after what he admits was a drunken outburst.

The Squirrel Busters have pointed to that as evidence that Rathbun is mentally unstable.

But neighbors in Ingleside on the Bay expressed anger at the Squirrel Busters, saying the Rathbuns are good people who haven't caused trouble. Thirty-eight people signed a petition during the holiday weekend, and more than 50 packed Tuesday's council meeting in the tiny City Hall, the most since a debate over taxes two years ago. Two residents who spoke out at the meeting said they didn't want any more pamphlets about Rathbun put on their door.

The Squirrel Busters distributed a 41-page, tabloid-style magazine with Rathbun's New Orleans mug shot on the cover underneath the headline, "Neighborhood Alert," in red block letters.

One woman told the council: "It's garbage."

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