In what attorneys characterize as a landmark decision limiting religious deprogramming, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal civil rights laws protect against religious as well as racial discrimination.

The decision, in a case brought by a Unification Church member who charged that his parents had kidnaped him in an effort to keep him out of the church, "is going to have a profound effect" on attempts by parents to force sons and daughters to forsake unpopular religions, predicted John E. Harrison, the Alexandria attorney who successfully argued the case.

The appeals court ruled that the parents of Thomas Ward, 28, conspired with 31 other persons to deprive him of his civil rights by kidnaping him while he was on his way back to the church in New York after a Thanksgiving Day visit to his family in 1979.

Ward alleged that he was held captive for 35 days in Virginia Beach and various locations in and around Pittsburgh and subjected to physical and psychological abuse from family members and others who had been engaged to deprogram him.

"We think it reasonable to conclude that religious discrimination, being akin to invidious racial bias, falls within the ambit of the law and that the plaintiff and other members of the Unification Church constitute a class which is entitled to invoke the statutory remedy," said the three-judge appeals court, meeting in Richmond.

"The conspirators did, in fact, interfere with Ward's constitutional right and this is sufficient to support his cause for action," the appeals court said. It noted that interstate travel, of which Ward was deprived by the kidnaping, is "among the rights and privileges of national citizenship." One of the three judges concurring in the unanimous opinion was Judge Clement F. Haynsworth, an unsuccessful Nixon nominee to the Supreme Court.

"Absolutely, it is a landmark decision," said Harrison, who represented Ward in the suit. "It is a certification of where the law should have been with respect to that civil rights statute."

Barrow Blackwell of Norfolk, attorney for Robert and Eugenia Mandelkorn, two of the defendants in the case and lead counsel among the defense attorneys, agreed that the decision was significant. "I think it is the first time the issue has been so neatly framed," he said.

In addition to recognizing religious discrimination as an area for protection under the civil rights statutes, Harrison said, the appeals court also gave opponents of deprogramming another weapon by noting that "animosity toward members of the Unification Church" was a factor in motivating Ward's parents.

Usually in deprogramming cases, the attorney pointed out, the courts give parents and the agents they hire a kind of "parental immunity," assuming that parents act out of love for and in the best interests of the family member.

"What they are saying, in effect, is that it is impossible for family members to commit certain torts against other family members. That's patently ridiculous." Harrison said. "What you had was the incipient development of bad law," which if unchecked, he speculated, could adversely affect other areas, such as laws relating to child abuse.

The appeals court's refusal to apply the parental immunity principle in the Adams case, he said, "may turn out to be the most salutary effect of the case."

Gary Lamarche of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, who has handled suits against deprogrammers, speculated that the appeals court decision "may make it easier in the future for young people to sue their parents." While he said he had not yet read the full decision, he added that "any weapon we can use against this practice of deprogramming is needed."

The practice of kidnaping and deprogramming cult members has become as controversial as the alleged religious brainwashing it was devised to counteract. Rabbi Maurice Davis of White Plains, N.Y., pioneer in the anti-cult movement, estimated that there are currently "a dozen or so" full-time, professional deprogrammers, but "hundreds of support systems" manned by volunteers, many of them ex-cult members or parents of cult members.

In his suit, which the appeals court has returned to the U.S. District Court in Norfolk for adjudication, Ward, a Notre Dame graduate, asked for an injunction against his parents to prevent further seizures and approximately $30 million in damages from the 31 coconspirators in the deprogramming. Harrison said the 1979 incident marked the second time Ward's parents had kidnaped him.

Attempts to reach Ward's mother -- his father has died since the filing of the lawsuit -- were unsuccessful. Harrison said that Ward himself is currently in South America.