A Virginia House committee approved a bill today that would permit officials of a church-operated home for mentally retarded children near Charlottesville to spank the youths.

Officials of the Faith Mission Home, operated by the Amish Mennonite Church, said that if they were not granted an exemption from a law that bars corporal punishment in state-licensed institutions they would be forced to close the 17-year-old home.

"This is a loving procedure and it's part of our faith," said Daniel Yoder, director of the home, who was accompanied by nearly two dozen Mennonites in traditional Amish dress. "We cannot compromise on this principle."

The spanking, Yoder said, is performed "on the place that God provided -- which means we don't hit them on the legs or back, where they can be injured."

Several lawmakers and civil liberties groups said they were shocked by the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Charles J. Colgan, (D-Prince William). It has passed the Senate on a unanimous vote and is expected to clear the House of Delegates later this week.

"We're not talking about religious freedom, we're talking about religious license," Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) said after the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted 13 to 7 with solid Republican support to send the measure to the full House, where legislators say it is likely to pass.

"What we're saying is that it's okay to beat retarded children who are helpless to understand what's happening to them and not only that, the Commonwealth of Virginia sanctions it," said Stambaugh. "This whole thing is appalling."

"I can't believe this," said Mary Lee Allen, child welfare director for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund. "This bill is the kind of thing we've been fighting for years. There are certainly other ways to deal with the needs of children, especially retarded children."

Colgan's "little spanking bill" as he called it, was introduced at the request of William Pridmore, a Manassas electrical contractor who said his 24-year-old daughter has made "remarkable progress" during her 12 years in the home.

Pridmore and other parents told the committee that their children are happy and have not been mistreated. "Corporal punishment is not the issue here," Pridmore said.

"This is part of our faith, the Bible commands it and it works," Yoder said today. "We're talking about a parental type of spanking, not a beating. There's nothing that will produce a change of attitude like a bit of Biblical chastening."

In a recent interview he said the home had experienced minor problems with overzealous staff members who improperly administered corporal punishment and were subsequently reprimanded. "We are human," he said, "but there have been no lawsuits."

Yoder said that parents are informed of the use of corporal punishment, which is administered infrequently and "as a last resort" for offenses such as lying, stealing and repeated disobedience. Youths are struck a maximum of 10 times with a leather belt or wooden paddle, he said, and a witness is always present.

For more than a year, Colgan told the committee, corporal punishment has been the focus of a dispute between the Mennonites and staff officials over new licensing requirements governing the home, on a 40-acre tract near Charlottesville.

At present, 54 retarded people ranging in age from 7 to 28 live in the home, which is staffed by volunteers and supported by church contributions and fees of $475 a month from the families of the residents.

After the Mennonites protested that many of the state guidelines violated their religious principles, officials agreed to waive some rules but were reluctant to compromise over corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is outlawed in state-licensed mental health institutions but permitted in Virginia public schools at the discretion of local school boards.

In the past month state officials negotiated a compromise that requires the home to submit guidelines governing corporal punishment for state approval. The compromise also requires that the school obtain parental consent.

"The (Robb) administration supports this bill," said Leila Hopper, assistant to Secretary of Human Resources Joseph L. Fisher. "We're willing to compromise on this instead of losing the facility."

That compromise did little to allay the fears of Del. Frank Slayton (D-Halifax), who voted against the measure. "When I'm told you're going to hit a child up to 10 times with a belt or a paddle that bothers me," he said.