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Krishnas Fear a KO : Religion: Laguna Beach temple may be lost if high court upholds a $5.3-million ‘brainwashing’ judgment in favor of Robin and Marcia George.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bada Hari das, barefoot and dressed in colorless monk garb, an India-imported clay drum tied round his neck, moved alone to the front of the polished temple floor of black-and-white tiles. Slowly, he began the chant, the internationally recognized Hare Krishna mantra.

But the high priest would not be alone for long, nor would the mantra remain at a soft cadence. This was the regular Sunday night feast, the chance for the devotees and other followers to kick up their heels.

By the time the dance peaked, the solemn Bada Hari das was laughing and dancing around the room, leading 40 men, women and children in stockinged feet who were swaying and jumping like giddy teen-agers at a sock hop.

“It’s festive, spiritual singing and dancing; giving our love back to God,” said Mangalya dasi, who goes by the name of Melissa Manning when out of her colorful sari and back at her weekday job. “Is that such a terrible thing that we must give up our temple?”

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That’s a common and foreboding question among the Laguna Beach Hare Krishnas these days.

In that temple and others like it across the country and the world, attention is focused on a coming showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court. As early as Monday, the court is expected to announce a final ruling in a lawsuit brought by a young Cypress woman and her mother, Robin and Marcia George, who together have won a judgment now totaling $5.3 million against the religious movement.

The case involves volatile questions of religious freedom, punitive damages and brainwashing.

To the Hare Krishnas, the issue is whether such large punitive damages infringe on their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. They believe the future of their entire religious movement is on trial. To the Georges, the issue is less philosophical: Will the U.S. Supreme Court finally force the Hare Krishnas to make good on an Orange County Superior Court jury decision that went against them seven years ago?

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For the devotees in Laguna Beach, the ruling’s implications are simpler and more direct: They fear that if the movement loses and is forced to pay the judgment, their local place of worship could close forever.

The case was first decided in 1984, when an Orange County jury found that the Hare Krishnas brainwashed Robin George, only 15 at the time, into running away from home to join the sect, and then hid her in locations across the United States and Canada for a year while her parents frantically tried to find her.

The jury awarded Robin and Marcia George $32.5 million, but the trial judge and the appellate courts have reduced that to $2.9 million. With interest, the judgment now stands at more than $5 million.

The Hare Krishnas say that paying the judgment could bankrupt them as a national religion, a claim disputed by the Georges’ lawyers.

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But for the Laguna Beach Hare Krishna devotees, the problem hits closer to home. Their parent organization, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, had to place six properties in receivership as collateral pending appeal. If the Georges prevail before the high court, they could seize the properties to pay off the judgment if the Hare Krishnas fail to do so by some other means.

One of those properties was the Orange County temple in Laguna Beach, a block north of Coast Highway on Legion Street.

“We would have about six months to come up with the money to pay them, or we would have to give up the receivership properties,” said Sudarma dasi, a spokesperson for the Hare Krishnas’ national office in Washington. “If we lose, we will try to do everything we can to keep from selling any temples, but I can see why those (people) in Laguna Beach are worried.”

Worried they are. This weekend they began a 24-hour prayer vigil awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, asking God to save their temple.

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They are united in their position: Why should they sacrifice what is the center of their lives to pay for a wrong they had nothing to do with?

“This temple is a very, very vital part of my life--it is my life,” said Mangalya dasi. “What happened to Robin George does not justify the persecution of an entire religion.”

Only a few of the Laguna Beach devotees have ever met Robin George, and most barely know who she is, though her odyssey began at their own temple when it was located on Coast Highway. They only see her as a threat.

At first, the Hare Krishnas were angry with Robin George, and those who appeared at the Santa Ana trial were convinced that the movement had done nothing wrong. Now movement leaders take a softer line.

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“Our enthusiasm was very great,” said Acyuta dasi, a leader at the Laguna Beach temple whose secular name is Linda Salas. “At that time we were probably too enthusiastic to bring new devotees into the movement--to our detriment.”

Said Mangalya dasi: “Mistakes were made.”

In Washington, Sudarma dasi explained: “The people who were dealing with Robin George were hardly more than teen-agers themselves. A wrong was committed, and payment for that wrong should be made. Our argument is that the judgment is excessive. The issue is punitive damages versus First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.”

Hare Krishna leaders also say that what happened to Robin George more than a decade ago could not be repeated today.

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“We are very careful to screen for minors,” Acyuta dasi said. “Our attitude about recruitment has changed because of the Robin George case.”

Sudarma dasi agreed, pointing out that those most responsible for hiding Robin George from her parents are now gone from the movement--and gone with them is the approach to recruiting that they expounded.

Robin George, now an interior designer working on a master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach, has a response to that: “Amen.”

“There is no other word for what they did to me: It was brainwashing,” she said. “It happened to a lot of other teen-agers too. If we’ve been able to put a stop to that, then this case has been worth it.”

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But George is hardly sympathetic to the current plight of the Laguna Beach temple. It was there where she was first given a bus ticket to the San Diego temple so she could hide from her parents.

That led to a year of devotion to the movement and to a flight that took her to temples in Louisiana and Canada, always one step ahead of her parents. They had put out flyers nationally in their attempt to locate her.

Even as she scurried from location to location, George said she was partly influenced to stay with the sect by the camaraderie it offered.

“In those days we called the Sunday night dances the ‘Love Feast,’ ” she said. “It all looks very positive, singing and dancing, everyone having a great time. They can be very charming.”

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George, whose father died before the lawsuit began, is unsympathetic partly because she remembers when she and her mother were willing to settle the lawsuit before the trial--for only a fraction of the millions the Hare Krishnas have reportedly had to pay in lawyers and expenses on the case.

Also, George accuses the Laguna Beach devotees who see her as a threat of directing their criticism at the wrong person. It was the Hare Krishna religion that embraced the wrongs done to her and her family, she said.

“Somebody has to take responsibility,” she said.

But even as they acknowledge the wrong done to Robin George, the Laguna Beach devotees question why the actions of their predecessors should be allowed to threaten their religious lives and their place of worship.

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The temple, a traditional church building on a hilltop just south of downtown Laguna Beach, has a long evolution of its own.

It was once a Baptist church, then an Evangelical Free Church.

In the late 1970s, a group of businessmen bought it to turn it into a commercial property. But they discovered a serious problem: It was zoned only as a place of worship.

The Hare Krishnas heard about the problem and worked out a solution. They traded their Coast Highway property for the Legion Street church.

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“The city at first worried about us, thinking we were this strange religion,” Bada Hari das said. “But I think now they’re pleased, because it was pretty run-down and we’ve made a lot of improvements in the place.”

The temple is active daily, with chanting weekdays as early as 5 a.m. It is also the source of the income that keeps the local movement going. Monday through Saturday, the temple is converted into a restaurant for vegetarian lunch and dinners. The food, ostensibly, is free, but almost everyone pays a donation of $2 or $3.

For a lot of people, like Mangalya dasi, the food was the attraction long before the movement.

“I had been coming here for years because it was one of the few places around where you could get a good vegetarian meal,” she explained. She gradually gravitated toward the movement.

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The food was also the first attraction for Claudia Scanlon. She had been bringing her husband, Frank Scanlon, a steel salesman, and their two sons, Eric, 9, and Sean, 8, to the big Sunday night dinners. The meals are served on paper plates in long lines on the temple floor after the chanting and other religious services.

Soon the Scanlons, who are Episcopalians, found they liked coming early to hear the chanting. Then they began to participate.

“It took a while before I would get out on that floor and dance,” Frank Scanlon said. “But now I enjoy it. It relaxes me. It’s a good surrounding for the kids.”

The Scanlons knew nothing about Robin George or the case until someone told them about it last Sunday. Claudia Scanlon appeared downcast at the thought of the temple closing.

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“We would miss it a great deal,” she said. “We’ll probably never become devotees, but these Sunday nights are an important part of our lives.”

It takes about $17,000 a month to operate the temple and its programs, Bada Hari das said.

“We’ve already been devastated by the great expense of appealing this case,” said Sudarma dasi in the Washington office. “We’ve had to reduce our living quarters, and some of our places are running as a shoestring operation. If we have to pay the full judgment, I believe we will be reduced to a series of small, independent groups scattered around the country, with no centralized organization.”

One of the Georges’ attorneys, Donald Niddrie of San Diego, disagrees.

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“They have many, many properties that will not be affected at all,” he said. “I think it helps bring a lot of sympathy to their cause if they make it sound like we’re out to shut down their religion and take away their temples.”

But in Laguna Beach, the fear of losing the local temple is real.

“We’re not Mutual of Omaha,” Bada Hari das said. “If we lose this case, we will have to pay with what we have. And what we have is our temples.”

Despite their admission that mistakes were made, there is an underlying current within the Laguna Beach sect that Robin George doesn’t deserve a huge judgment.

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“A lot of teen-agers run away from home and become prostitutes,” Mangalya dasi said. “We offered Robin George love and happiness. Was that so bad?”

Robin George says that it was.

“They make it sound like they care about you when you are a devotee,” she said. “But I learned that all they really care about is saving their own skin.”

The ultimate vote on that difference of opinion, the one that both the Hare Krishnas and the Georges will be watching, will come from the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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