Public school officials here have apologized to a 12-year-old girl for confiscating Bibles she had distributed to her classmates in conjunction with a school project and questioning her about her religious beliefs.

The school district decided to avoid a court case by signing a stipulation saying that it "regretted that an honest misunderstanding" resulted in a "limited abridgment" of the constitutional rights of Rebecca Higgins.

In May 1985, when the girl was in sixth grade, her class was asked to prepare reports on a book of personal interest. She chose the Bible, and received an A on her report. After the reading of her report, she gave New Testaments to her teacher and to any classmates who asked for one.

A month later, school officials confiscated the Bibles, told Rebecca she had "broken the law," and questioned her about her religious beliefs. They subsequently returned the Bibles, but told the girl not to distribute them on school property.

Rebecca and her parents filed suit against the school district and were represented by the Rutherford Institute of Manassas, Va., a nonprofit organization specializing in religious freedom issues.

After the apology from the school district, Rutherford Institute attorney Larry Crain said the case "sends a strong signal to public school superintendents and principals that if they fail to recognize the legitimate First Amendment rights of their students they can find themselves in federal court."