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County ordinance raises questions about Scientology

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10:00 PM PST on Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors Tuesday fast-tracked and unanimously approved an ordinance that restricts picketing outside homes and a Church of Scientology base near Hemet.

Supervisors deemed the restrictions urgent and voted to forgo regular statutory proceedings, which include a second hearing. The ordinance went into effect after its introduction Tuesday despite unresolved questions about exactly how rules will apply to the Scientology base.

The new ordinance, backed by the church and Supervisor Jeff Stone, stipulates that pickets must remain at least 50 feet from the property line of any residence they are targeting in unincorporated Riverside County. The ordinance makes an exception to permit protesters on a sidewalk across the street from the property.

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Jeff Stone

But the church's base in Gilman Hot Springs abuts both sides of Gilman Springs Road. The property line extends around about 700 acres that are home to film studios, recreational facilities and offices as well as residences for church members and leaders.

"If it is talking about property line, then it's talking about the whole compound," Supervisor Roy Wilson said at the supervisors meeting. "Won't (pickets) have to be 50 feet from the compound? And the compound is on both sides of the road and takes in a large geographic area. What I am afraid of is by passing this we will eliminate the ability for legitimate protests."

Wilson, Supervisor Bob Buster and Scientology protesters asked county staff to identify specific locations near the base where the ordinance would permit pickets.

Stone posed the question along with others about the ordinance to Samuel Alhadeff, the church's attorney who advised county counsel in creating the ordinance.

Neither Alhadeff nor County Counsel Pamela Walls pinpointed any locations, but both assured supervisors protesters would have many options.

When asked later to indicate them on a map, Walls said she was not familiar with the specific property.

"We are going to make sure they have the ability to protest and do so visibly," Walls said.

Wilson voted for the ordinance but added to it a requirement that the county must return in about six months with a report on its implementation. Buster added a provision that the county must create clear procedures so people know where they can legally protest.

"I believe we should have the right to protest," Stone said. "I just don't believe we have the right to protest and jump on private people's property with the potential of intimidating or hurting them."

Several people who have picketed at the Scientology base spoke against the ordinance and questioned its urgency Tuesday.

"This ordinance is specifically tailored to prevent picketing at Gold Base, Scientology's international headquarters," Francois Choquette said.

Choquette said he and others will seek to have the ordinance overturned by the courts as an unfair encroachment on freedom of speech.

Stone pushed for the restrictions' immediate implementation, saying all county residents' need for privacy and a sense of well-being in their homes was urgent.

Protesters have picketed the Gilman Hot Springs compound periodically for many months and planned another picket later this month.

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