Mayor Marion Barry yesterday signed a bill reforming the city's sexual assault laws and removing criminal penalties for a variety of previously illegal sexual acts.

Barry released a carefully worded statement in which he attempted to assuge some religious leaders who have objected to the measure's effective legalization of adultery, sodomy and other acts between consenting adults. In general, the bill lessens the penalties for sex between consenting adults while broadening those for forced sexual activity.

As originally proposed, it contained a provision that would effectively have permitted sex between children of similar ages. That measure was stricken from the bill in the face of strong opposition from ministers and others.

Barry wrote that "the protections the law secures for women, prison inmates, children and other victims of sexual assault are compelling and desperately needed," and added that it is the prerogative of the City Council, and not the mayor, to "fashion the law and policy by which society is governed."

Barry said that instead of laws to regulate conduct, the District of Columbia should look to family stability and "churches, mosques, synagogues and other custodians of society's moral conscience which teach through precept and example the higher dignity of humanity and spirit of liberation."