MEDFORD - A new Interstate 5 billboard that calls the pope the Antichrist presages the start of a new West Coast campaign to discredit the Catholic Church.

The Medford-area sign, blue with large white and red lettering, simply reads: 'The pope is the Antichrist. Free proof' and then gives an Internet Web site.

The Web site, which features evil-sounding music and a lightning-tossing wizard, mentions neither the pope nor Catholicism. It offers a free book to those who type in name and address.

In southern Oregon, many Catholics have gotten used to the glaring highway billboard. Some laugh it off. Three years ago, the local Catholic vicariate even agreed to a conscious policy to remain mum, not wanting to hurt the cause of an unrelated lawsuit that would press billboard companies to get state permits. The case is now in federal district court.

'We don't want to get into a big flap on religion,' says Joan Legg, a committee member of the Archdiocese of Portland Southern Oregon Vicariate. 'We don't want the billboard people to have freedom of speech and religion as a defense.'

Yet many Catholics are irked about the image the large sign gives their region.

'As a Catholic, I do find the billboard offensive, but it also just makes us in southern Oregon look like idiots,' says Kathy Morgan, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Medford. 'It makes us look like a bunch of hicks. But in a sense I guess we are. Anti-Catholicism is just here; you have to take it with a grain of salt.'

Dominican Father Gerald Buckley, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland, wants Catholics to speak out against the massive message.

'It's a disgrace,' says the priest. 'We get e-mail and letters from people traveling from California who see this sign just as they come into the state. Can you imagine putting something up like that about the Jews or Martin Luther King? There would be hell to pay. I just have to express my disappointment in the Oregon people that they haven't risen up against this.'

Jewish leaders are learning about the billboard and have stood by Catholics.

'The Jewish community condemns all such messages in the strongest possible terms,' says Charlie Schiffman of the Jewish Federation of Portland. One Portland rabbi who drove by the sign called the Archdiocese of Portland to express outrage and offer support.

The Archdiocese of Portland is welcoming the encouragement.

'I do not believe hate messages should fall under the aegis of freedom of speech,' says Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the archdiocese. 'Hate messages are simply unacceptable no matter at whom they are directed.'

For eight years, sporadic billboards and leaflets have shown up along the interstate from Portland to Medford, all advancing a serpentine scheme: the pope is the ultimate usurper who will try to foil God's plans at the end of time.

But in May, when a small-town barber named Larry Weathers paid tens of thousands of dollars to spruce up his anti-papal billboard near Gold Hill, he told the sign agency that a broader campaign was forthcoming.

'He said somebody from out of state with deep pockets was very interested in getting this message out all up and down the coast,' says a representative of Medford-based Outdoor Media Dimensions, owner of the billboard near Gold Hill.

The employee spoke on condition of anonymity.

Weathers himself has moved to Hawaii, where the Sentinel could not locate him. Two years ago, he reported that his local group, SDA Remnant Ministries, counted only 40 members but was funded generously from out of state.

Weathers is part of a loose association of renegade Seventh-day Adventists that includes California millionaire Danny Vierra. Leaders of related western Adventist splinter congregations say it may be Vierra who is behind the plans for the new West Coast anti-Catholic campaign.

Vierra, a businessman, runs an Adventist-based health education ministry in Lodi, Calif. He also denounces the veneration of Mary in a book distributed to 25 million readers and printed in several languages.

Vierra - whose mailing list contains 25,000 names - denies he is involved in the media campaign in Oregon. He says he is now focusing on California and is involved in sending his book on Mary to Africa and South America.

In his book, Is Mary Dead or Alive?, Vierra argues that the Madonna revered by Catholics is really the biblical harlot of Babylon who will play a part in the destruction of the faithful.

Across the country, dozens of anti-Catholic congregations exist, now emerging under the banner of 'Historic Seventh-day Adventists.' One leader estimates a U.S. following of about 400,000.

All are disowned by mainline Seventh-day Adventist leaders who decry the theological attacks.

Seeking local sympathetic donors, the better-funded of the splinter groups share costs to spread their message in media far and wide.

On Easter Sunday, 2000, a Sweetwater, Tenn., congregation placed an ad with lengthy anti-Catholic scriptural arguments in the Oregonian. Some other Northwest newspapers turned down the $15,000 advertisement. The newspaper in Longview, Wash., did run the 5,600-word manifesto, but apologized the next day and donated income from the ad to a local Catholic charitable organization.

Weathers' southern Oregon group has had connections to Printed Page Ministries of Troy, Mont., an organization run by a former Portland car salesman, Les Balsiger. Balsiger, who publishes a newspaper called The Protestant, is about to open a training school in Hungary to build up his work in Eastern Europe.

His latest publication shows an image of a Croatian priest beheading a prisoner.

Balsiger, in turn, is linked with Raphael Perez, a Florida preacher who has railed against the pope and Catholic institutions via glossy magazines and radio spots. Perez is appealing a Florida court decision that he must remove the words 'Adventist' from his organization title.

Perez and Balsiger have been behind an effort to unify the movement via camp meetings, traveling speakers and the Internet. Doctrinal squabbling has slowed the effort, the two say.

'One of the problems is that we can be a magnet for fanatics,' Balsiger admits.

Members of the anti-Catholic movement believe the papacy is embroiled in a plot to undermine U.S. liberties. They say that the intrigue was prophesied in the Bible, adherents claim, referring to a book written in the 1840s by Ellen G. White, a prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

It is White's book that one receives from the SDA Remnant Ministry website.

Mainline Adventists believe in the Trinity and bristle against hierarchical authority. They look forward to the end times, when they see themselves as a faithful remnant who have been faithful to God's commands, including a Saturday Sabbath.

The splinter groups, mainline Adventists say, have gone too far by mounting theological attacks.

'Billboards attacking the pope, and by implication the Catholic Church, are not associated with any ministry sponsored or approved by the Seventh-day Adventist church,' says Helen Smith, director of communication for the Adventists' Oregon Conference. 'The group calling themselves SDA Remnant Ministries . . . chooses its form of theology and ministry outside of that which is approved by the Seventh-day Adventist organization.'

Jeff Herson of Outdoor Media Dimensions has not answered phone calls. But the employee who prefers to remain anonymous did say that the advertiser sees the controversial southern Oregon billboard as a result of free speech.

'I don't believe in the message, and I don't support it for a minute,' said the upper-level manager. 'But the company believes in freedom of speech.'

Though many Catholics have chosen to ignore the controversial billboard, the birds favor it as a target. Workers are planning to clean off an unusually large amount of excrement from the sign.

'It looks like somebody from above is seeking retribution,' says the manager.