LOS ANGELES -- The Jews for Jesus had temporarily deserted the world's third-busiest airport. The Hare Krishnas were nowhere in sight. But Ron Zhore, minister of religion, was hard at work exercising his recently reaffirmed First Amendment rights.

His props included a tattered clerical collar and dark suit, a sign appealing for donations to help the homeless and identification papers issued by the Universal Life Church, a mail-order religion that says it has ordained 14 million ministers worldwide.

"God bless you, sir. Have a happy day and a nice flight. Jesus loves you," said Zhore, switching on a beatific smile as a middle-aged businessman hurrying to catch a plane threw $5 into his collection bucket.

Standing nearby was Jim Kapel, attorney for Los Angeles International Airport, who said he regards people like Zhore as a public nuisance and many of the voluntary fund-raising activities that take place at the airport as fraud. But, having just lost a Supreme Court battle with the Jews for Jesus, he feels powerless to intervene.

"That's what happens when you put a dog collar on someone," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Instead of Jim Kapel, attorney at law, I could be Jim Kapel, religion for the rights of the people, and it would be very difficult for the government to say I was not a religion. There are a lot of people out there whose only religion is to advance themselves."

Over the last decade, the gleaming passenger concourses of this airport have become a legal battlefield. Rival armies of lawyers, religious groups and fund-raisers have grappled with such delicate issues as freedom of speech and religion and the definition of a public place.

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down as far too broad a ban on all "First Amendment activities" at the airport.

But the ruling failed to resolve the larger question of whether an airport terminal is a "public forum" -- much like a sidewalk or a city park -- or a building designed for specialized use -- such as a government office or Army base -- from which it is reasonable to restrict solicitors.

An estimated 80 million people pass through this airport annually, making it a crossroads for cynics and innocents, fanatics and fools, sages and charlatans. It is also a microcosm of the present state of the solicitation business.

"This is the best soap opera you ever saw in your life," said Zhore, standing with his "help the homeless" sign in terminal two as humanity surges past. The airport has been his place of work for the last two years, during which he has become a familiar figure to porters, flight attendants and security officers.

Explaining his First Amendment rights, he growls: "By law, I can say anything I like, provided I don't touch you -- and you better keep your paws off me, too."

Pausing to shout a cheery "God bless you" to a smartly dressed young woman, he says as an aside, "She's a big shot with Hawaiian Air," then adds, "People respect me here. I don't give them static."

"Missionaries" like Zhore work in shifts as members of a team. Recruited on skid row by another mail-order minister, the Rev. Herman Travioli, they are bused to the airport every morning from their downtown shelter. Exactly what happens to the money they collect is unclear.

"These folks are themselves homeless, so they can argue that they are helping the homeless by helping themselves," Kapel said. "It's difficult to accuse them of misrepresentation."

Zhore said he keeps "a portion" of the money for expenses, including rent. He refused to answer further questions on the subject, commenting: "Ever since I've been out here, trying to help the homeless, there's been some reporter trying to stir up garbage."

Travioli said, "That's privileged information" when asked for details of his group's finances. He referred a questioner to his ecclesiastical superior, Bishop Kirby Hensley of the Universal Life Church.

Contacted by phone at his headquarters in Modesto, Calif., Hensley said his organization can't exercize much control over members.

"To tell you the truth, I'm against people raising money at the airport," said the self-consecrated bishop, a flamboyant character who said he has been in the mail-order religion business for 30 years. "Very little of this money goes to where it's supposed to go. Sometimes it turns into a big ripoff."

Los Angeles International has traditionally sought to ban activity not of "direct assistance to the traveling public." An alternative, adopted by Washington National, among others, is imposition of "time, place and manner" restrictions.

"You have airports like Los Angeles that try to prevent you from exercising your First Amendment rights at all," said Moishe Rosen, executive director of Jews for Jesus. "Others, like Dulles, just try to make it very difficult. And then there are places like San Francisco which pay little attention as long as you behave yourself."

Rosen is proud of his battle scars. He names seven airports, ranging from Portland, Ore., to Dallas, where he has been arrested for handing out tracts. He claims to have been clubbed, manacled and thrown down a staircase while peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights.

Officials trace the airport-soliciting phenomenon to the mid-1960s, when antiwar activists discovered that airport concourses were an excellent place to lobby new soldiers.

Hare Krishnas started moving into the airports in the 1970s and were followed by supporters of Lyndon H. Larouche Jr. and members of obscure religious organizations.

"These groups are a bit like the airlines. They change their makeup and operating procedures to reflect public trends," Kapel said.

The solicitors have strong opinions about each other. Jews for Jesus, a Christian evangelical society founded in 1973 to work among Jews, is opposed to airport fund-raising and restricts its activities to distributing leaflets. Fund-raisers like Zhore accuse the group of "stirring up trouble" by attracting media attention to the airport.

On one point, however, the rival groups are in agreement. They see themselves as front-line soldiers in the battle for freedom of speech.

"No doubt what we have to say annoys a few people, but that is the price we all have to pay for having a free society," Zhore said. "Demonstrators will be the first to disappear if a free society goes. After that, they will start banning the newspapers."