In a symbolic gesture, nine of 11 members of a now-disbanded National Endowment for the Arts literature panel have resigned to protest a congressionally imposed requirement that grants be awarded taking into consideration "general standards of decency."

The panel had already evaluated 1990 grant applications in the literary publishing category and was not scheduled to meet again. But panelist E. Ethelbert Miller, head of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, said the resignations represent "people who were a key part of the operation, making a statement."

NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer said in a statement that the protest is premature. "The Endowment now is engaged in an examination of the language to determine how it can be implemented in good faith to the Congress and without impeding artistic creativity," he said. "We are certain that reasonable people can arrive at the answer to this question."

Panelist Helaine Harris of Daedalus Books in Hyattsville said she didn't protest last year when explicit restrictions aimed at obscenity were in effect because Frohnmayer had assured panel members that artistic merit was the criterion for evaluating grant applications.

"If you looked at the {legislation} last year and you believed you were judging something that had artistic merit, by definition it wasn't obscene," she said. "Decency is such a vague term. ... I don't think I can make a judgment on decency, or should. It can be interpreted in many ways, and it's restrictive."

The protest was the second since Congress approved legislation reauthorizing the endowment for three years. The other came from theater producer Joseph Papp, who earlier this month turned down two grants worth $323,000.

The 1991 funding bill requires that grants be awarded "taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." The legislation was a compromise between those who wanted a detailed list of restrictions and those who wanted no restrictive language.

In his statement, Frohnmayer said the new law "seems, by any standard, far more appealing than elimination of the Endowment or specific, draconian restrictions on creativity, either of which seemed very likely prior to the compromise."

Frohnmayer did not reiterate that artistic merit is the criterion for evaluating grant applications. But Harris said the NEA staff had told panelists to apply that standard, and she still felt compelled to protest. "It's a difficult situation, but I don't think we should continue to compromise on freedom of expression," she said.

Miller said the protest is intended in part to fortify future panels. "I think people will be very conscious of how they serve," he explained. "... If they feel there's a need to speak up, they'll realize that there's been a precedent."

Only three of the 11 on the NEA's literary publishing panel were to serve again on the new panel. Two of those three -- Anne Bourget, grants administrator with the California Arts Council, and Beverly Jarrett, director and editor in chief of the University of Missouri Press -- opted to remain on the panel. The third, Jennifer Moyer, a publisher from Mount Kisco, N.Y., said she was invited to participate on the 1991 panel, but refused.

Jarrett said the resignations seemed like "an idle gesture" wrongly aimed at the endowment.