Witnesses at a hearing here today spoke emotionally of being involved in a "nightmare," of being forced to live a spartan life isolated from family and friends, of brainwashing.

The speakers were former avowed members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church or parents of former Moonies, as the cult's adherents are nicknamed. They urged a Maryland House of Delegates committee to initiate an investigation of religious cults in the state.

The church was defended by one of its officials. And the proposal for an investigation was assailed by some of the House committee members, one of whom likened such a probe to "the Spanish Inquisition."

But the emotional impact came from the former Moonies. Steven Hassan, a soft-spoken, 26-year-old wearing tinted glasses and a pin-striped suit, recalled following orders like a "true soldier" when he was the church's chief Maryland fund raiser from 1974 to 1976.

He said he added thousands of dollars to the church's coffers through the sale of flowers candy and candles throughout the state.

Since being "deprogrammed" -- persuaded to renounce the church -- Hassan recalled today that he slept only three hours a day for months while he was a Moonie. He said he now fears for his life because he left the church.

Other former Moonies or their parents told other horror stories. A father said his daughter had been kept in a state of "living death," others spoke of sleep deprivation, and loss of mental and emotional stability. A mother said her daughter, a former Moonie, spoke in monosyllables while a member of the cult and stocked her refrigerator with "one stalk of celery and a cockroach."

The House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee also heard Michael W. Jenkins, head of the Unification Church in Maryland, defend it. He discounted the brainwashing stories, vigorously defended the organization's leaders and invited delegates to "visit us anytime. If you do, you will discover that Rev. Moon is teaching a God-centered morality of the highest caliber."

That assertion drew snickers from some spectators in the packed committee room.

But some of the committee members criticized the idea of investigating religious cults.

Del. Robin Ficker (R-Montgomery) likened such a probe to "the Spanish Inquisition."

Del. Luiz Simmons, another Montgomery Republican, compared it to the McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s. Simmons voiced concern over invading the privacy of individuals and possibly violating civil rights.

At one point, he asked, "Where's the fraud?" in answer to a witness's testimony about the church.

A resolution being considered by the committee would set up an eight-member investigating commission if the full General Assembly approves. The committee would probe recruiting techniques, fund-raising practices and brainwashing and coercive activities allegedly employed by various cults. It would be authorized to request assistance from the state attorney general's office in obtaining records, documents and files of the organizations.

Measures that would initiate similar investigations are pending in the legislatures of New York, Illinois and California.

In addition to the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology and Guru Maharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission were singled out at the hearing as cults that employ manipulative techniques and turn children against their parents.

Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), cosponsor of the resolution to begin an investigation, said she has received numerous calls from constituents, asking for assistance in rescuing children from cults. "We cannot turn our backs on their plea for help," she said.

At one point, Ficker said his wife" "was a nun for 10 years," said asked if that could be considered in the same category as cult membership.

"Absolutely not," snapped Ruben. "There's no correlation."

Former Moonie Hassan said at one point he is concerned "that members of the Unification organization might be heading for a fate similar to the followers of Jim Jones" who committed mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana in November 1978.

Del. Francis White (D-Prince George's) asked Jenkins of the Unification Church if his organization passed out "Kool Aid cocktails," referring to the Jonestown tragedy.

Jenkins said they do not.