A lawyer yesterday sued the National Endowment for the Arts, alleging that its $15,000 grant for an artist's controversial exhibition displayed "open and notorious hostility toward religion" and violated the Constitution.

The lawsuit was filed against the NEA and its chairman, John E. Frohnmayer, in U.S. District Court here by the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal services organization, on behalf of David Fordyce.

Fordyce was described as a "devout Christian" from Los Angeles.

The suit cited the NEA's grant last year for "Tongues of Flame," an exhibit of works by David Wojnarowicz of New York that was organized by University Galleries at Illinois State University.

The Fordyce suit alleged that the NEA-supported catalogue for the Wojnarowicz show includes an image depicting Jesus Christ as an intravenous drug user. It said the catalogue also refers to Roman Catholic Cardinal John O'Connor of New York as a "fat cannibal" and "the world's most active liar about condoms and safer sex."

Fordyce said NEA support for the catalogue conveys "a message of hate and animosity toward institutionalized religion" sponsored by the federal government, in violation of the First Amendment's provision for separation of church and state.

He asked the court for a permanent injunction prohibiting the arts endowment from "funding, sponsoring and endorsing works which promote blasphemous and sacrilegious hate material."

The NEA had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

In a telephone interview from New York, Wojnarowicz lamented the NEA's "awful track record" in supporting works by minority artists, including homosexuals.

"If this kind of heat comes from cult or extreme conservative religious groups over the few coins that finance minority expression, then this country is in pretty bad shape," he said.

Barry Blinderman, director of the Illinois gallery, accused the lawsuit's sponsors of "hypocrisy" and angrily defended Wojnarowicz's work against charges of sacrilege.

"Before these people condemn the NEA, they should remember that it was the so-called holy men who didn't accept Christ and turned him in," Blinderman said. "Jesus said 'judge not,' and I recommend that these people follow the precepts of the God they are proclaiming."

John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, told a news conference here that the NEA had "unconstitutionally used taxpayers' funds to engage in actions which are hostile toward religion and religious persons.

"The government should not become the patron of hate art against some of its citizens," Whitehead said. "Religious people must no longer be the personal targets of cannon fire from National Endowment projects."

Wojnarowicz previously had filed a federal lawsuit in New York against the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his conservative American Family Association.

In late June, a New York federal judge ruled that Wildmon's group probably had misrepresented Wojnarowicz's works by including fragments of them in a pamphlet titled "Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay for These 'Works of Art.' "

The judge said the pamphlets, which were mailed to members of Congress, religious leaders and media outlets, probably had damaged the artist's reputation and the value of his works. He issued an injunction forbidding further publication of the pamphlet.