Attorney General Janet Reno said today she wants 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez returned to his father in Cuba as soon as possible, arguing that both law and morality favor reuniting father and son.

Reno's comments followed a legal challenge yesterday by attorneys for the boy's Miami relatives, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in Miami seeking to keep him in the United States. Reno said the Justice Department would move swiftly and vigorously to respond to the lawsuit.

"We will look at everything that can be done to have the matter heard appropriately and promptly, with the recognition that it does the child no good to be in limbo," the Attorney General said at her weekly press briefing. "I want to respond as soon as possible consistent with appropriate preparation."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled Jan. 4 that only Elian's father has the right to speak for the child, and not the Miami relatives who have been caring for him since he was rescued at sea. Reno said that is still her strongly-held view.

"Law, morals, family values that we talk about all say that the bond between parent and child is one of the most sacred, one of the most important relationships there is," Reno said. "I believe that with all my heart and soul with respect to the way I grew up . . . if I'd inadvertently ended up in another land and was told I could not go home, I would have felt deprived."

If the family succeeds in delaying the boy's return to Cuba long enough, Congress could intervene by making him a U.S. citizen, a scenario Reno said the Justice Department would review if it occurred. Reno also said the Justice Department would have a representative at a scheduled hearing today on whether U.S. District Judge James L. King, the judge in the case, has a conflict of interest because a Gonzalez family representative is doing some work for the judge's son, who is running for re-election to the local Miami-Dade County bench this fall.

In addition to demonstrations in Miami by anti-Castro activist groups, leaders of other groups advocating improved relations between Cuba and the United States have threatened to call for acts of civil disobedience if the child is not returned to his father soon. The boy's mother drowned along with nine others as they attempted to reach Florida from Cuba in late November.

Asked now that the matter was in federal court whether larger policy issues prevailed, Reno focused on Elian Gonzalez. "I always try to put things in terms of the human beings involved, and right now this is about one little boy," Reno said. "It is so important that we address the human issue of a little 6-year-old boy, of his father that wants him back. And I think the law should proceed with all deliberate speed to address that issue."