Foes of religious cults alternated with defenders of religious freedom in a noisy and emotional congressional hearing yesterday.

The Russell Senate Office Building hearing room was packed with spectators, the majority of whom were members of the Unification Church, who heckled and jeered speakers who portrayed cultists as "child molesters" and cheered those who branded the hearing a "witch hunt."

Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who organized and chaired yesterday's session, stressed that it was not a formal congressional hearing, an investigation or a debate. Rather, he said in opening remarks, it was intended as a "starting point for members in their search for a through understanding of this very sensitive and complex issue."

Last week, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Protestant and Jewish leaders complained to Dole that his proposed witness list - which included professional deprogrammers, parents of cult members and others with strong anti-cuit views -- failed to reflect the complexity of the issue.

As a result, four specialists in religious and civil liberties and two spokesmen for the Unification Church were invited to testify yesterday.

Five senators and four representatives attended at least part of the four-hour session. Dole added that "a couple of my colleagues thought it better not to show up here this morning" because the hearing had become so controversial.

Jackie Speier, aide to the late congressman Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.) who was injured in the shooting at a Guyana airstrip in which Ryan died, told about conversations she had with adolescent girls in Jonestown, the Guyana commune of the Peoples Temple cult.

"Their answers were devoid of normal emotion, speaking in monosyllables and quite often not in proper response to the question asked, making it appear that certain answers were programmed to fit a number of questions," she said. "These women showed little interest in career or college goals, expecting an early marriage within the cult to be their only option in life."

Speier called for an investigation of "religious groups that may be fronting for other purposes," but added, "I must strongly caution against a McCarthy-type witch hunt or any lessening of true religious freedom."

Ted Patrick, the most widely known of the deprogrammers, called the war against cults "one of the most dangerous wars in the history of mankind."

Describing cult members as victims of mind control, Patrick said their minds were "like containers, with the lids on tight; put them under the faucet and nothing can come in. What I've got to do [in deprogramming] is take the top off."

Patrick was booed by Unification Church members when he finished, but they saved their deepest animus for Rabbi Maurice Davis of White Plains, N.Y., a prime mover in the anti-cult movement.

He was repeatedly interrupted with shouts of "lies! That's a lie!" as he spoke of death threats he had received and likened the Unification Church to the Nazi Youth Movement and the Peoples Temple. The rabbi inflamed the crowd even further with his concluding comments: "I am here to protest against child molesters. For as surely as there are those who lure children with lollypops in order to rape their bodies, so, too, do these lure children with candy-coated lies in order to rape their minds."

Veteran civil liberties lawyer Jeremiah S. Gutman warned of the constitutional dangers of legislating against religious cults. "Every definition I've heard here, trying to distinguish cult from legitimate religion, offends the First Amendment," he said. "There is no official truth in this country; therefore there can be no official falsity."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, an attorney and minister of the United Church of Christ, urged that if the government is to make any mistakes in response to the new religious groups, "let those mistakes be on the side of religious tolerance. When our nation's leaders have done otherwise... they have always plunged us into our darkest periods of our history."

Lynn pointed out that his spiritual forebears included the Puritan elder who "presided at the infamous witchcraft trials" of 17th century New England. "With that sense of history we are particularly troubled at any hint of governmental scrutiny of religious faith," he said.