Scientologists have called on their celebrity members to lead daily protests here over a $39 million verdict against the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
The verdict was returned by a Portland jury May 17. The Scientologists say the issue is one of religious freedom. Mainline church leaders in the area say some consider Scientology a business and they claim the issue is financial not religious.
An estimated 4,000 Scientologists from 15 countries and most states are attending protest meetings, picketing the county courthouse and claiming that the verdict threatens religious freedom.
The verdict called for punitive damages to be paid to Julie Christofferson Titchbourne, 27, who said she had been fraudulently misled into spending more than $3,000 on Scientology courses when she was 17 years old. In 1979 a jury awarded her more than $2 million in damages, but an appeals court overthrew the earlier verdict on the ground that one claim, outrageous conduct on the part of the Church of Scientology, had not been proved.
Renata St. Laurence of Los Angeles, press representative for the church, estimated the size of the crowd and claimed support from ministers in the Northwest.
Among the visiting Scientology performers and entertainers who have led meetings are jazz musician Chick Corea, actor John Travolta, rock musician Edgar Winter, television actor Michael D. Roberts, TV performer Jeff Pomerantz, rock musician Nicky Hopkins and singer Al Jarreau.
A concert has been held every night but May 27, Memorial Day. St. Laurence called the verdict a "major attack" on freedom of religion. "Money is not the issue," she said. "It's religious freedom."
She acknowledged that Scientology is spending heavily to bring celebrities and members from many parts of the world to Portland. On Memorial Day, Scientologists Frank Stallone and Peter Schless, composers of the score of the movie "Rambo," entertained patients at the Veterans Hospital in Portland.
Protest meetings and concerts have been held at a park across the street from the courthouse, at a park on the Willamette riverfront and in Portland Meadows, a race track. Scientologists have nailed advertising for meetings to posts and poles all over town and have picketed the courthouse daily.
Discussing the scope of the protest, St. Laurence said, "We've put our foot down. We've come to protest this verdict as a violation of our First Amendment rights."
However, the Scientologists' claims were disputed by the Rev. Rodney I. Page, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries in Oregon, which represents a merger of the Portland and Oregon councils of churches.
"This is not a freedom-of-religion issue," Page said. "This is a case in which civil rights violations and fraud were charged. The Church of Scientology is viewed by many as a business enterprise. When a church gets into business enterprises and makes promises and raises people's expectations for goods and services, it had better deliver or face the consequences."
Robert Castagna, a Portland lawyer and executive director of the Oregon Catholic Conference, said the main issue seemed to be commercial, not religious.
"It comes across as a fraud claim, not a religious issue," he said.